JEDDAH: Saudi authorities have issued fresh warnings on how to handle the desert kingdom’s wealth of camels, thought to be the source of the mysterious MERS coronavirus in the country.
The Middle East Respiratory System has now killed 147 people out of 491 infected in Saudi Arabia since it first appeared in 2012, with cases in the kingdom accounting for the vast majority registered globally.
With scientists still struggling to understand the illness and no vaccine or antiviral treatments available to combat its spread, Saudi authorities have introduced new guidelines to try to stem the trickle of new cases reported nearly every day.
The agriculture ministry has urged Saudis handling camels to wear masks and gloves to avoid catching the disease, in a statement published in local media.
The warning came after scientific studies commissioned by the health ministry suggested a connection between camels and the virus.
MERS is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the SARS virus that appeared in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine percent of whom died.
Like SARS, it appears to cause a lung infection, with patients suffering coughing, breathing difficulties and a temperature. But MERS differs in that it also causes rapid kidney failure.
Earlier research had shown the virus was “extraordinarily common” in camels for at least 20 years and may have been passed directly from the animals to humans. Camel meat must be cooked and its milk boiled before consumption, the agriculture ministry said, echoing recommendations from acting health minister Adel Fakieh following a visit by World Health Organisation experts last week.
Former health minister Abdullah Al Rabiah warned last month against assuming that camels were behind the virus, insisting that “one should not jump to conclusions”.
He was dismissed days later on April 21 without official explanation and replaced by Labour Minister Fakieh who immediately promised “transparency” in providing the public and media with information about MERS. The ministry now publishes a daily detailed bulletin on its website updating the numbers of MERS infections and deaths. REUTERS