News You Really Need To See: “Get Off Their Backs: Saudis Defend Camels”

“Get Off Their Backs: Saudis Defend Camels”

The Washington Post, May 17, 2014, p.A8

MERS is very scary.  This week, while avoiding the term global health emergency, the World Health Organization announced that the deadly viral infection was both serious and urgent.  So far, there have been 571 confirmed cases of MERS; 171 of those people died from the disease.  There’s one place, however, where the mood about MERS isn’t scaring everyone.  It’s also the place where the infection was first reported in 2012 and where almost 500 recorded cases have been found so far: Saudi Arabia.  And the skepticism about the virus has taken a strange turn in Saudi Arabia, where people have begun kissing camels in response to MERS. … On Twitter, photographs of men kissing and stroking their camels have been accompanied with comments disparaging MERS… It seems a strange protest, but there’s something behind it.  Earlier this week, the Saudi government began a campaign to stop people from eating raw camel meat and liver or drinking unpasteurized camel milk.  Experts argue that Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS’ full name) or traces of it have been found in a large proportion of the camels tested in Saudi Arabia, and antibodies from the virus have even been found in camel populations in Spain’s Canary Islands, thousands of miles away.  Camels may not be the main source of MERS (many experts point the finger at bats), but they certainly seem like one big possibility.  For some in Saudi Arabia, avoiding camels is not such an easy task.  One study from 2008 found that there were almost 900,000 camels in Saudi Arabia alone, with almost 15 million across other Arab states.  The animals are a source of income for a large number of people, and popular too. … Partly due to this fondness for camels, and partly due to a perceived lack of transparency from the Saudi government about MERS, a lot of people aren’t totally convinced by the warnings about camels.”

Quickie Analysis:  The merits of kissing one’s camel aside, the denial of science in the face of a disease outbreak is a dangerous pursuit.  (Case in point: an estimated 300,000 extra people died because of the South African government’s refusal to believe HIV caused AIDS 15 years ago.)

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