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First non-travel-associated MERS in Africa–Researchers report past MERS-CoV infections in two Kenyans

MERS-CoV Particles
Transmission electron micrograph of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus particles, colourized in yellow (image credit: US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases).

‘. . . Researchers at the Nairobi, Kenya-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and at the University of Bonn Medical Center in Germany have found evidence of MERS-CoV antibodies in archived blood samples from two of 1,122 Kenyan livestock handlers, collected between 2013 and 2014. Both people whose blood showed signs of past MERS-CoV infection—a 26-year-old woman and 58-year-old man—were asymptomatic and kept livestock other than camels, the researchers report in . . .  Emerging Infectious Diseases. Camels do roam the counties in eastern Kenya where both livestock handlers live, and—as in the Middle East—people in the region consume camel products.

‘While there have been confirmed cases—even an outbreak—of MERS outside the Middle East, all of these to date have been linked to importations by people who had traveled to the affected area.

This study is the first to report non-travel-associated cases of MERS-CoV infection in Africa.

‘“The absence of autochthonous human MERS-CoV infections in Africa has triggered hypotheses regarding differences in disease transmission between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and has raised doubts regarding the role of camels as a source of infection,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “Our study provides evidence for unrecorded human MERS-CoV infections in Kenya and the proportion of seropositive specimens that we found is comparable to previously reported proportions of unrecorded infections in the general population in Saudi Arabia.”

‘MERS is likely underdiagnosed in Africa, the researchers reported. Viral diversity may be in part to blame, according to ILRI’s Joerg Jores.’

“We need to collect more data to understand any diversity in the MERS virus found, for example, in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, and how the virus spreads,” Jores, a coauthor on the study, wrote in an email.

For now, said Jores, figuring out how people are infected with MERS-CoV is key.

“We need to know more about the epidemiology of the pathogen, especially in Africa,” he wrote in an email.

Read the full article by Maina Waruru in The Scientist: Non-travel-associated MERS in Kenya, 23 Mar 2016.

Read the science paper: MERS-CoV antibodies in humans, Africa, 2013–2014, by Anne Liljander (ILRI), Benjamin Meyer (University of Bonn Medical Centre), Joerg Jores (ILRI), Marcel Müller (University of Bonn Medical Centre), Erik Lattwein (EUROIMMUN AG), Ian Njeru (Kenya Ministry of Health), Bernard Bett (ILRI), Christian Drosten (University of Bonn Medical Centre and German Centre for Infection Research) and Victor Max Corman (University of Bonn Medical Centre and German Centre for Infection Research), published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol 22, No 6 (June 2016), doi: 10.3201/eid2206.160064, 2016.

Read more about these and related research findings on the ILRI News blog:
MERS-CoV antibodies found in two people in eastern Kenya, 7 Mar 2016
UK chief scientific adviser visits Kenya: Part 4—Development of a field-friendly diagnostic test for MERS, 24 Jul 2015
New studies on MERS coronavirus and camels in eastern Africa published, 28 Aug 2014

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