WASHINGTON, Oct. 16 (Xinhua) -- Nearly half of camels in parts of Kenya have been infected by the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, according to a study published Friday that called for further research into the role camels might play in the transmission of this emerging disease to humans.
Kenya has the third largest camel population in Africa, estimated at over three million, just behind Somalia and Sudan. To date, no human MERS cases have been reported in the east African nation.
A team of scientists from the U.S., Kenya, New Zealand and Europe, surveyed 335 dromedary -- single humped -- camels from nine herds in Kenya's Laikipia County and found that 47 percent tested positive for MERS antibodies, showing they had been exposed to the virus.
"Although Laikipia County camel density is low relative to more northern regions of Kenya, our study suggests the population is sufficient to maintain high rates of viral transmission and that camels may be constantly re-infected and serve as long term carriers of the virus," study author Eric Fevre, professor at the University of Liverpool, said in a statement.
"MERS in camels, it seems, is much like being infected by the common cold."
MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and there is currently no vaccine or specific treatment available.
To date, it has infected 1,595 people in more than 20 countries and caused 571 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Although the majority of human cases of MERS have been attributed to human-to-human infections, camels are likely to be a major reservoir host for the virus and an animal source of MERS infection in humans.
"The significance of this is not yet clear, because we don't know if the virus is universally zoonotic," Fever said. "While the risk of these camels spreading MERS to humans cannot yet be discounted, it appears to be, for now, very low as there have been no human cases diagnosed in Kenya."
Fevre suspected that mutations required to make this virus zoonotic might have only evolved recently in the Middle East, where the human outbreaks have so far been concentrated.
The team will next focus on determining whether the MERS virus of Laikipia camels is genetically similar to the one in other parts of the Horn of Africa, as well as to the known human pathogenic strain in the Middle East.
"Further research to determine whether the MERS virus is dangerous to humans in Kenya and other sub-Saharan countries is critical," lead author Sharon Deem, director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine in the United States added.
The findings were published in the U.S. journal Plos One.