MERS Young camels responsible for deadly virus

The team found that more than 90% of animals became infected by the age of two and virus shedding was more common in calves than in adults.

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New research has shown that young camels, aged less than 4 years could be a major source of the dreaded MERS virus.

According to BBC, the team found that more than 90% of animals became infected by the age of two and virus shedding was more common in calves than in adults.

After a meeting between the Bonn scientists and colleagues based at the Erasmus Medical College Netherlands, researchers focused efforts on animals that had close contact with humans living in the Middle East - horses, cattle, sheep, goats and dromedary camels.

At the onset of the work, the scientists found that dromedary camels living in the Middle East had antibodies that recognised MERS virus protein - a strong sign of past infection.

None of the other animals contained the virus.

To gain more insight, they analysed samples obtained from dromedary camels living in other countries and  found that MERS infection of camels in Africa and the Middle East was rife and this data highlighted that camels had been infected for decades.

In another phase of the research, they found that a vast majority of samples from animals (which were drawn from Dubai) aged more than 2 years contained MERS antibodies, showing that the virus is a common camel juvenile infection.

More so, active virus infection was observed far more frequently in animals less than 4 years old, with approximately 30% of camels aged less than one, shedding lots of virus.

It was then found that very young animals that posed the greatest threat to humans, although how the virus spreads to humans is still unknown.

Speculating, the group said it might be through direct contact with body fluids from infected camels, though juvenile camels are very wary of humans and will normally avoid contact with them.

However, when they are separated from their mothers, usually at or before the age of two, they are brought into contact with humans and this provides the perfect opportunity to pass on any virus that they are shedding.

Also, infection might also occur through drinking unpasteurised milk; possibly contaminated by transfer of virus present in the saliva of an infected calf onto the mother's teat during suckling.

Speaking on the infection risk, Dr Müller who was involved in the earlier ground-breaking research looking for the origins or MERS said,

"When it comes to being infected, I think you really need close contact and in particular behaviour like kissing camels, drinking raw milk, touching the nostrils and then touching your eyes. That's the way to get infected. It's not airborne, that's for sure, and you need quite a dose."

To combat the chances of infection, study authors argue that simple changes in animal husbandry, like delaying the age that calves are taken away from their mothers, is likely to help.

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