Saudi researchers discovered traces of the deadly Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus in the air of a barn, where a sick camel was housed. According to official data, the virus has already infected 834 people around the world and killed at least 288 and the possibility of MERS being airborne raises concerns among experts.
Scientists from Saudi Arabia said they found genetic traces of the MERS virus in an air sample, taken from a barn in the kingdom, holding a camel, infected with the disease. The disturbing news was announced Tuesday in a study, published in mBio-, an online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology. Esam Azhar, associate professor of medical virology at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, and his team obtained the sample from a barn, owned by a local man who died from MERS.
According to the researchers, before feeling ill himself, the 43-year-old man noticed four of his camels were seriously sick, having MERS symptoms, including nasal discharge. He treated them with a topical drug, directly applied to the nose. In a week, he got sick and eventually died from the dangerous disease. Camels were tested and air samples were taken for analysis. Only the sample, taken the same day when one of the camels tested positive, showed genetic fragments of the virus.
This means that MERS may be airborne, the worst scenario virologists can imagine. In order to confirm or dismiss it, scientists need further research, Azhar says. It’s also essential for health authorities to take measures for preventing possible airborne transmission. As evidence shows that people working with camels are at higher risk of MERS infection, camel owners or those working in slaughterhouses should wear face masks, gloves and protective clothing. Washing hands regularly and avoiding direct contact with sick people are also important. When dealing with camel meat or milk, people should also stick to strict hygienic rules and cook the food properly.
MERS symptoms may range from flu-like coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath to more serious ones such as pneumonia and kidney failure. Generally, the elderly, little children, pregnant women and people with chronic diseases are more susceptible to the virus.