FAO calls for more livestock monitoring to stop MERS

By Eliot Beer

- Last updated on GMT

FAO: “It is vitally important for the international community to increase our understanding of ‘where' and ‘how' the virus is transmitted..."
FAO: “It is vitally important for the international community to increase our understanding of ‘where' and ‘how' the virus is transmitted..."

Related tags Arabian peninsula

Experts at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have called on increased monitoring and investigation of livestock to stem the spread of MERS across the Middle East.

Health experts and veterinarians from across the Middle East, along with international advisors, met in Oman last week at a summit called for by the FAO and the Oman Ministry of Agriculture. Attendees at the meeting noted the “recent upsurge in human cases in the Arabian Peninsula and the suspected zoonotic transmission involving, in particular, dromedary camels​”.

The mechanisms behind the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Coronavirus, are still poorly understood, but the origins of the disease have been linked to camels. To date MERS has killed more than 190 people, mostly in Saudi Arabia.

Urgent research needed

Experts at the summit agreed on a set of specific recommendations, including urgent investment in the research and surveillance of animals, and a systematic search for potential sources of human infection from animals or the environment.

They also called for action in engaging private sector organisations such as animal breeders and slaughterhouses, better co-ordination and information sharing around the movement of livestock, and better awareness of proper hygiene procedures among those handling livestock.

It is vitally important for the international community to increase our understanding of ‘where' and ‘how' the virus is transmitted, ‘who' the source is - whether animal or human - and 'when' and ‘why' certain people are spreading the virus,​” said FAO chief veterinary officer Juan Lubroth.

There is an urgent need to focus investigations on the epidemiology of MERS-CoV in animal species, to prevent human primary infections and to avoid putting other people in danger. By better understanding the epidemiology, we can provide the necessary guidelines to avoid spillover from animals to humans and protect the camel or other animal industries from potential negative consequences,​” he added. 

Camels infected since 1992

MERS was first reported in 2012, but came to prominence in 2013 after additional cases were reported. Camels came under the spotlight in the hunt for the virus's source when it was discovered that 100% of a sample of Omani camels had MERS antibodies in their bloodstreams.

According to the FAO, some studies now appear to show MERS has been present in Saudi camel populations since at least 1992. Other studies have found genetic evidence of MERS infection in camels in Qatar and Egypt.

While camels may be the source of MERS, health experts say there is little chance of catching the disease from contact with livestock, as the main transmission mechanism for the virus among humans is through person-to-person contact.

A statement from the World Health Organisation (WHO) advises: “People at high risk of severe disease due to MERS-CoV should avoid close contact with animals when visiting farms or barn areas where the virus is known to be potentially circulating. For the general public, when visiting a farm or a barn, general hygiene measures, such as regular hand washing before and after touching animals, avoiding contact with sick animals, and following food hygiene practices, should be adhered to.​”

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