Is it safe for travelers to interact with camels in countries on the Arabian Peninsula?
MERS-CoV has been circulating in dromedary camel populations in the Middle East and parts of Africa for some time. Because close contact between dromedary camels and humans is common on the Arabian Peninsula, the animals have been linked to the spread of MERS, although the route of transmission remains unclear — like so much else about the disease.
Infectious Disease News asked experts for their opinions on whether or not it is safe for travelers to interact with camels in the Middle East. Read their comments and share your own thoughts about the topic online at Healio.com/ID.
Amira Roess, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of global health at George Washington University:
If a person is generally healthy and does not have any immunocompromising conditions or underlying illnesses (eg, diabetes or asthma) then I think it is safe to have casual contact with camels, meaning they can ride and pet them. But, everyone who interacts with camels and other animals should wash their hands or use hand sanitizer after coming into contact with them, because all animals carry microbes. In general, the research to date does not really warrant us worrying about contracting MERS from casual contact with camels.
We still do not know where MERS emerged from, and there are just a handful of research groups that are doing research into this area. When we have looked for MERS in camels, we found that younger camels seem to carry the virus and older camels do not carry the virus, but we found antibodies that show that they have been exposed to MERS at some point. However, we do not know where the camels are getting it in the first place. And we do not know enough about the transmission from other animals to humans to make any real guesses about what animals we should be avoiding to prevent the spread of MERS. What we do know from the research that has been done is that oftentimes camels are not the cause of MERS infections in people.
Disclosure: Roess reports no relevant financial disclosures.
Phyllis Kozarsky, MD, professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, and medical director of the TravelWell clinic at Emory University Hospital:
For people who are at greater risk for acquisition of infections or who may be at greater risk for more severe infection, if they become ill, it may be wiser to avoid camels, including drinking camel milk or urine, or eating camel meat that may be undercooked, which is done in some areas. As far as an otherwise healthy individual choosing to ride a camel for a short period of time, that is up to the individual how he or she measures risk. Risk for one may not be risk for another, and as long as they educate themselves, they may choose to be around camels or not. For example, one person may feel that it is very risky to go to the Caribbean now because of Zika, when others are not worried (I am not talking about a pregnant woman or her partner.) Some think it is risky to go trekking in Nepal and others think not. Some feel it is risky to ride on a motorbike in Bermuda, and others do not. So, without a definitive link between camels and MERS, it is really up to the individual to weigh the risk for him/herself.
Disclosure: Kozarsky reports no relevant financial disclosures.