Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV, was found in almost all blood samples taken from 358 dromedary camels in Nigeria and 188 camels in Ethiopia, according to a study published online by the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal. In Tunisia, MERS-CoV was found in 54 per cent of adult camels, and in all of the animals from one southern province.
The findings add to previous studies that have found the virus in camels in Spain’s Canary Islands and Egypt, as well as in several nations on the Arabian Peninsula, and suggest that there may be undiagnosed human cases in Africa, researchers from the Netherlands wrote in the study.
The blood samples were collected between 2009 and 2011, suggesting the virus was circulating well before 2012 when the first human case was identified, they said.
“The possibility exists that MERS-CoV illness occurred before its discovery in 2012 and that such infection has been overlooked in the areas with evidence for virus circulation among animals during the past 10 years,” the authors wrote in the journal, published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
MERS has sickened at least 614 people, killing 184 of them since 2012, according to the World Health Organisation.
While most of the cases and deaths have been in Saudi Arabia, there have been infections in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States. All cases are linked to people who live in or have travelled to the Middle East, or who were exposed to someone who did.