WHO asks people to stop drinking camel urine until MERS is contained

Responding to a deadly outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in South Korea, the World Health Organization (WHO) is asking people to resist the temptation to drink camel urine. The beverage could be playing a roll in spreading the infection, which has killed 6 people and sickened 87 others.

[I]n parts of the Middle East, drinking camel urine is not as uncommon as one might think. In parts of the Arabian Peninsula, the liquid is consumed for its allegedly palliative properties. The Prophet Mohammed is said to have informed his followers to drink camel urine to cure them of disease.

In 2013, an intrepid reporter for Vice sampled the substance while in Yemen. “The taste of warm piss is, as you would expect, disgusting,” he wrote. “But when it’s mixed with camel milk, as it traditionally is, it’s even worse.

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An update on MERS

Scientists have been tracking Middle East respiratory syndrome since 2012. At New Scientist, Deborah MacKenzie looks at what's going on with the disease now — including a surge in cases and the identification of MERS patients outside the Middle East. Read the rest

Does MERS come from bats? Or possibly, camels?

MERS — the deadly coronavirus related to SARS — has infected 77 people in the Middle East (that we're aware of) and killed half of them (as far as we know). Now, scientists are starting to look for its source and they're focusing in on two animals that have lots of opportunity to interact with local populations in Saudi Arabia, and other countries. Read the rest

More on MERS

MERS is the SARS-related virus that's killing people in the Middle East — and the government of Saudi Arabia, where most of the outbreak is happening, has been reticent about releasing information on infections and deaths. Now, the government of Jordan has admitted that the earliest recorded outbreak, which happened back in April of 2012, actually infected at least 10 people, rather than the previously reported two. It sounds like this revelation was the result of an internal re-evaluation of previous records, rather than the suppression of something the government had long known. But it gives you a good idea of how bad the epidemiological information on MERS is right now, and how little we know about it. Read the rest

Saudi Arabia still tight-lipped on SARS-related virus with pandemic potential

In July, millions of people will travel to Saudi Arabia to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. When they do that, they might be at risk of contracting MERS — Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome — a coronavirus, similar to SARS. They could also be at risk of carrying MERS back to their home countries. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabian authorities have released so little information about MERS that global public health experts don't know how to advise these pilgrims as they prepare for travel. We don't know where MERS came from, we don't know what its infection patterns are or how the disease has changed since it was first identified. It's not even certain that we know the true extent of infections and deaths, given that the Saudi Arabian government has been releasing that information in batches, sometimes months after those infections and deaths actually happened.

Helen Branswell is one of my favorite sources on global public health and pandemic disease. She's got a guest post at Scientific American blogs that explains what we do know about MERS, and why the lack of information is such a big problem.

The new virus was first isolated in June 2012. But its existence came to the world’s attention only weeks before last October’s hajj, when an Egyptian infectious diseases specialist who had been working in Saudi Arabia’s second largest city, Jeddah, reported that he had treated a man who died from an infection caused by a new coronavirus. Whether MERS has or can gain the capacity for sustained person-to-person spread is unknown.

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