Nuclear Techniques Help Diagnose Camel Disease in the Middle East

Video: S. Slavchev/IAEA

An emerging disease affecting camels and people is threatening the Middle East and its neighbours. Last month, the IAEA in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) trained veterinary laboratory staff from this region on how to detect and diagnose the disease using nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques.

The Middle East respiratory syndrome caused by a coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is a serious and growing concern as it can be transmitted from animals to humans, said Giovanni Cattoli, Head of the Animal Production and Health Laboratory at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques for Food and Agriculture, where the scientists were trained.

The most important thing about these techniques is that they help us identify the virus fast. They’re quick and they’re accurate.

Mohamed Alhosani, Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, United Arab Emirates.

“A growing number of human cases is being reported almost on a daily basis and some are so severe that they can be fatal,” Cattoli said. Around 35% of cases have resulted in death, according to reports from the World Health Organization (WHO).

A camel problem

Camels are the main hosts of the virus. In the Middle East, people use camels to travel; they eat their meat and drink their milk. Countries in this region are reporting the highest number of human cases — in particular Saudi Arabia, where the virus was first identified in 2012.

When infected, camels don’t get visibly ill.

“The virus causes very mild clinical signs in camels, so it’s not easy to notice,” Cattoli said. “This is why it is so important to ensure that scientists and technicians in laboratories of the Middle East are aware of the risk, familiar with nuclear-derived technology, and ready to detect the virus.”

Once scientists have detected the virus using these nuclear-derived techniques, authorities can alert the population in a particular area and advise on basic hygiene and other measures, such as washing hands after being in contact with camels or maintaining a certain distance from them. These measures can reduce the risk of exposure to the virus, which is important because the disease it causes is not yet treatable.

The course and the science

Veterinary diagnosticians from Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen met last month at the FAO/IAEA laboratories in Austria. International experts trained them in modern molecular virus detection techniques (see The Science box) to detect and control the virus.

The techniques that these veterinary workers learned will help them accurately distinguish this virus in a matter of hours. By contrast, when using traditional techniques, the disease takes several days or even weeks to spot.

“As a new virus, there is still a lot we need to learn,” said Mohamed Alhosani, from the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, who participated in the course.  “The most important thing about these techniques is that they help us identify the virus fast. They’re quick and they’re accurate.”

These techniques will not only help them detect and monitor MERS-CoV, but also contribute to increasing the basic information about the virus. Through genetic sequencing, for example, scientists can learn how the virus is spreading and evolving.

The course also helped foster collaboration, Alhosani said. “Meeting vets from other countries will open a lot of gates for us. We will now be exchanging information in shared databases. We will work together to ensure the virus does not spread to other regions of the world.”

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