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Study confirms camel connection to MERS

WASHINGTON, June 5, (Agencies): Researchers said Wednesday they have found the first direct evidence that the potentially deadly Middle East respiratory virus, or MERS, jumps directly from camels to humans. The virus has hit Saudi Arabia the hardest, killing 282 people out of 688 infected, according to the Saudi health ministry’s latest figures. MERS has been found elsewhere in the Middle East and in Europe, Asia and North America, brought by travelers who were infected in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.

The latest findings in the New England Journal of Medicine are based on a 44-year-old Saudi man who kept a herd of nine camels and who died of MERS in November 2013. His friends said they witnessed him applying a topical medicine to the nose of one of his ill camels — four of them were reportedly sick with nasal discharge — seven days before he himself became stricken with MERS. Researchers sequenced the virus found in one of the sick camels and the virus that killed the man, and found that their genomes were identical.

“These data suggest that this fatal case of human MERS-CoV infection was transmitted through close contact with an infected camel,” said the study led by Tariq Madani at the department of medicine, King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. Previous research has suggested that the virus has been quite common in camels for at least the past 20 years, and was likely making the jump into humans. “Although others have shown that dromedary camels may be important reservoirs for MERS coronavirus, this paper from Azhar and colleagues provides the first unequivocal evidence of camel to human transmission of the virus,” said W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for infection and Immunity at Columbia University in New York. “The challenge now is to determine the extent to which camels or other animals contribute to outbreaks of human disease,” said Lipkin, who was not involved in the New England Journal of Medicine study. In Kuwait, the Health Ministry’s Undersecretary Khaled Al-Sahlawi affirmed on Thursday that the ministry has not registered any new cases of the deadly MERS virus and is continuously working with neighbour regional health authorities to combat the disease. “Only three persons tested positive for the virus in Kuwait before and these cases were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) and posted on its website,” he said of the disease, which is one of the strands of coronavirus.

Dr. Al-Sahlawi made the comments at a ceremony to honor head of the awareness committee on coronavirus Dr. Ghalia Al-Mutairi and member of the committee Dr Malek Al-Nabhan for their efforts to promote awareness about the preventive measures. “The fatality rate among MERS patients around the world ranges between 30 and 35 percent, or almost a third. This is the case in Kuwait as well as other parts of the world,” he pointed out. Dr. Al-Sahlawi voiced hope for discovering a vaccine against the fatal virus before the start of the Hajj (pilgrimage) season. “Lab tests, being conducted on animals, show promise as the animals were responsive to the drugs but this process needs time to get the approval of the WHO before introducing the drugs to our countries,” he explained. Dr. Al-Sahlawi noted that during his visit to Al-Jahra medical area yesterday he discussed with the medical officials there the possibility of launching a coronavirus lab at the biological lab of the area and launching an ICU. On her part, Dr. Al-Mutairi thanked Minister of Health Dr. Ali Al-Obaidi for his support to the awareness committee. “The committee is made up of 35 volunteers from university students who tour the health facilities countrywide and organize activities at the various colleges and institutes to raise public awareness about the virus and preventive actions,” she said.

Dr Al-Mutairi added that the committee plans to organize 25 lectures in collaboration with the ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs as part of the medical awareness campaign for pilgrims in the ‘Umra’ (minor pilgrimage) season in the Holy Month of Ramadan and the Hajj season.

Meanwhile, a dramatic upward revision in the number of people killed by the MERS virus in Saudi Arabia may signal a fresh approach from Riyadh, but also raises new questions about how the twoyear- old outbreak has been handled. Experts in global health and infectious diseases say transparency with data is critical to learning more about the virus, which until two years ago had never been seen in humans but has now killed more than 300 people worldwide

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