Any ban on the camel trade with the region would badly hurt the
already fragile economy of Somalia, which is a major livestock
exporter to Saudi Arabia.
Tariq Madani, who heads the scientific advisory board of the Saudi
health ministry command and control center (CCC) - set up to handle
the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome or MERS - said
scientists are currently testing camels at sea ports before
authorities allow them in.
MERS was first identified in humans in 2012 and is caused by a
coronavirus from the same viral family as the one that caused a
deadly outbreak of SARS in China in 2003. More than 700 people in
Saudi Arabia have contracted it and 292 of them have died, according
to latest data from the Saudi health ministry.
"We do have suspicions that the disease may have been imported
through camel trade from the Horn of Africa, but we haven't proved
it yet," Madani told Reuters in a telephone interview from Jeddah.
He said the final decision on a ban on camel imports from the region
lies with the agriculture ministry. Officials there could not be
reached for comment but Madani said the ministry "hasn't yet
released an official ban for the importation of camels", although
colleagues there had told him such a move is "under consideration".
"We have always imported camels from the African Horn.... but we
will stop that until we get more information on whether they are
infected or not," he said.
Saudi Arabia has previously been criticized for its handling of the
MERS outbreak, which public health experts say could have been under
control by now if officials and scientists there had been more
willing to collaborate on studies into how the virus operates and
where it is coming from.
Much more scientific research is needed to nail down the source of
the MERS infections in humans and exactly how it makes the leap, but
preliminary studies suggest the virus's animal reservoir is likely
to be camels.
Viruses frequently jump from animals into people in what are called
zoonotic events - and while many of them peter out, some can develop
into human epidemics.
"Since this is a zoonotic disease we are collaborating with the
ministry of agriculture to answer the question of whether these
camels imported from the African Horn are possible sources of
infection," Madani said.
Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest market for livestock from
Somalia, with at least 70 percent of Somali exports going to the
kingdom. The rest go mostly to other Middle East states such as the
United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, Qatar and Egypt.
Somalia exported about 4.7 million animals in 2013. Sheep and goats
account for roughly 80 percent, followed by camels and some cattle.
Most exports go via two Gulf of Aden ports - Bossaso and Berbera -
in two breakaway regions of northern Somalia, but the animals come
from all over the country, with some arriving across porous borders
with southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.
Madani said that while Saudi Arabia does have some domestic camels,
most of those used for meat and trade are imported from the Horn of
Lisa Murillo, an expert in virology and affiliate scientist at the
Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States, said she had
analyzed data on human MERS cases in the Middle East and camel
imports from the Horn of Africa - and found striking correlations
that cry out for further investigation.
As a result of her findings, Murillo says she has developed what she
acknowledges is a "very speculative hypothesis" - that the number of
MERS cases in Arabian Peninsula countries is related to the number
of camels imported into those countries.
[to top of second column]
"That correlation just leaps off the page," she told Reuters in a
"The most important thing we need to be doing right now - outside of
Saudi Arabia and the UAE - is looking for human and camel cases of
MERS in the Horn of Africa - particularly in the ports of Somalia,"
she said. "If it turns out to be in camels there, why wouldn't it be
in humans there as well?"
Madani said teams of scientists working under his leadership at the
CCC were doing exactly that in Saudi.
"As we speak we are doing a study on camels imported from the Horn
of Africa," he said. "We are taking samples from them in the sea
ports before they are allowed in, and we're also taking samples from
people handling them to test them for antibodies."
Murillo said data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization on national camel stocks in 2012 show there were 7
million camels in Somalia compared with 260,000 in Saudi Arabia.
Experts say that if Saudi Arabia does ban imports from Somalia, it
could have a severe impact on a nation struggling to rebuild itself
while an Islamist insurgency rages.
A previous Saudi ban on Somali livestock exports in 2000 - the
concerns then was rinderpest and Rift Valley fever - hammered the
economy before it was lifted in 2009. From 2 million head shipped in
2008, exports jumped to 3 million in 2009 and hit 4.8 million in
2012, according to an EU official.
"It would be very serious, quite devastating," Ernest Njoroge,
Somalia program officer in charge of livestock and fisheries for the
European Union. "In the year 2000, there was a total ban of the
livestock and that was very very devastating."
Some African traders grumble that exports are already looking weak
in 2014, although the peak export season is only just starting.
Most shipments are made before the Muslim holidays of Eid el-Fitr -
at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan which begins this coming
weekend - and Eid al-Adha which follows a few weeks later.
Njoroge said it would become clear how the trade is doing only in
about October or November.
"Most Somalis depend on livestock and when there is no export there
is an economic crisis, particularly for the pastoralists and
traders," said Ahmed Hussein, a livestock trader speaking to Reuters
by telephone from Baladweyne, a town in central Somalia. He said
business was slow.
"When livestock is exported there is circulation of money. Now since
there is no export, the livestock price is down locally," he added.
Abdisalan Omar, a restaurant owner in Mogadishu, said male camels
for export can sell for $700 to $900, but go for $400 to $500 when
sold for domestic consumption.
(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Nairobi, Abdi Sheikh in
Mogadishu and Angus McDowall in Riyadh; Editing by Simon Robinson
and David Stamp)
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