In Kenya, nearly half of the camels have been infected by the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), raising concerns about the role they could play in transmitting the disease to humans.
The researchers said that although there have been no human MERS cases diagnosed in Kenya so far, the risk of these camels spreading the disease to humans cannot be discounted. MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and there is currently no vaccine or specific treatment available. To date, it has infected 1,595 people in more than 20 countries and caused 571 deaths.
Although the majority of human cases of MERS have been attributed to human-to-human infections, camels are likely to be a major reservoir host for the virus and an animal source of MERS infection in humans, the study said.
"Although Laikipia County camel density is low relative to more northern regions of Kenya, our study suggests the population is sufficient to maintain high rates of viral transmission and that camels may be constantly re-infected and serve as long term carriers of the virus," said one of the study authors Eric Fevre, professor at University of Liverpool in Britain.
"It might be that the mutations required to make this virus zoonotic have only evolved recently in the Middle East, where the human outbreaks have so far been concentrated," Fevre said.
Further research to determine whether the MERS virus is dangerous to humans in Kenya and other sub-Saharan countries is critical, lead author Sharon Deem, director of Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine in the US, said.
The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.