DUBAI // Scientists are investigating an unusual outbreak of pneumonia in camels.
So far, 15 cases - all of them fatal - have been recorded from March 2008 until now. The bacteria causing the disease, Rhodococcus equi, is common in foals and can sometimes infect people. But this is the first time it has been discovered in camels.
"It is a new disease for us," said Dr Ulrich Wernery, scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL). "It came out of the blue."
Between March 2008 and July the following year, the laboratory received four dead camels from a large farm in Dubai. More animals arrived from a second farm, raising the total number of animals to 15.
"They camels came to CVRL for necropsy and we saw that they had severe lung pneumonia," he said.
Tests in Germany isolated the bacteria from the dead animals' lung tissue. Later, the bacteria was also found in liver and spleen tissue samples. A scientific paper describing the findings, including an account of the disease found in a llama in the US, has been published in the most recent issue of the international journal Veterinary Microbiology.
"This is the first published account of this disease for old-world camels," said Dr Wernery.
A soil-living bacteria, Rhodococcus equi, is mainly present in damp conditions. On farms, contamination often starts from areas where there is dripping water from pipes or other sources of leakage.
In young horses, the disease is usually easily treated with antibiotics because those animals exhibit heavy breathing, lethargy, coughing and fever early on. Camels, however, do not develop those symptoms until the pneumonia has become very advanced, making it much more difficult to identify.
"Camels can endure so much pain, that you will not see it until it is too late," Dr Wernery said. "Most of the time, an animal is sick for two days and then it just drops dead."
The scientists are now looking for clues as to what might have caused the outbreak.
"This is an emerging, new disease in camels," Dr Wernery said. "We do not know if the pattern of disease in camels is the same as in horses."
This month, his laboratory started collecting and testing samples from the two affected farms. Feed and soil samples are being collected, as well as samples from camel droppings on the two farms. The latter is tested, as droppings are a common way of passing the infection in horses. So far, scientists have tested 20 samples, all found to be negative, with 100 more to go.
"We have no idea, but I hope in six months we would know the source ... Once we find the source, we can hopefully prevent [further] spread," Dr Wernery said.