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Keeping camels, and their keepers, free of disease in Kenya, where ‘raw’ camel milk is becoming popular

Northeastern Kenya 17

Camels cover dozens of kilometres in search of water; average distances to watering points in the outskirts of Marsabit and Moyale, in the upper east corner of Kenya, run into dozens of kilometres (photo by Ann Weru/IRIN

‘Camels are known for their ability to travel long distances across the desert without water.

‘But they’re also becoming an increasingly important source of milk for people in drought-prone regions. That includes East African countries like Kenya, where camel numbers have skyrocketed over the past few decades.

‘But introducing camels—or any species—to a new region, could mean bringing in new diseases.

‘The St. Louis Zoo has been studying camel diseases in Kenya to help assess their risks.’

A couple of years ago, Margaret Kinnaird, the executive director of the Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya ‘began a project on camel health with wildlife veterinarian Sharon Deem, who directs the Institute for Conservation Medicine at the Saint Louis Zoo.

Camels may have some diseases that, as the human population reaches for camel milk, these diseases could be passed to them,” Deem says.

Deem says a growing number of Kenyans are drinking camel milk—most of it unpasteurized. “These are estimates, but we really believe that up to 10 percent of Kenya’s 40 million people—so we’re talking four million people—probably drink unpasteurized camel milk,” Deem says.

Camels aren’t native to Kenya. But Margaret Kinnaird estimates that over the past 30 years, their number has grown to something on the order of three million animals. . . .

Amos Omore of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi says unlike cattle and goats, camels can keep producing substantial quantities of milk under drought conditions—which climate scientists predict will become more severe and frequent in Kenya the future.

So I would imagine that given climate change, the role of camels is bound to be even more important than it has been before for those who live in these areas,” Omore says.

‘Sharon Deem says with camels becoming more common in Kenya—and significant as a source of nutrition—it’s critical to find out what diseases they might be spreading. . . .

‘Deem says the testing didn’t turn up much brucellosis or trypanosomiasis. But almost a third of the camels—and more than half the ticks—tested positive for Q fever, a bacterial disease that can be fatal in humans. “So we really feel that Q fever in camels could be very important in this region,” Deem says.

‘Deem says the next step will be to take a closer look at Q fever and how it’s affecting livestock, people, and wildlife. She also wants to keep working with Kenyan ranchers on what she calls “camel 101”—what they can do to keep their camels healthy.’

Read the whole article, and listen to the podcast, at St Louis Public Radio: Why is the Saint Louis Zoo tackling camel diseases in Kenya?, 10 May 2013.

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