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WHO: To Avoid MERS, Don’t Drink Camel Urine

Camel urine is consumed in some parts of the Middle East for its allegedly palliative properties.

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Six people have died, 87 have been infected, and some 1,800 schools and kindergartens have temporarily shut their doors amid an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in South Korea. It’s likely the most significant outbreak of the disease outside the Middle East, and over the weekend, the World Health Organization released details on new cases of the disease in South Korea. It also issued a surprising piece of advice for individuals seeking to avoid infection: Drink neither raw camel milk nor camel urine.

That’s perhaps not as strange as it sounds. While the exact transmission mechanisms remain unclear, it is thought that the disease has its origins in bats and that camels may serve as a transmission point to humans. And in parts of the Middle East, drinking camel urine is not as uncommon as one might think. In parts of the Arabian Peninsula, the liquid is consumed for its allegedly palliative properties. The Prophet Mohammed is said to have informed his followers to drink camel urine to cure them of disease.

In 2013, an intrepid reporter for Vice sampled the substance while in Yemen. “The taste of warm piss is, as you would expect, disgusting,” he wrote. “But when it’s mixed with camel milk, as it traditionally is, it’s even worse. Getting rid of the musky aftertaste that takes over your mouth after the first sip is impossible.”

Health researchers have also warned that Saudi camel traders may be another possible point of transmission for MERS. By drinking raw camel milk, they warn, the traders may be unwittingly transferring the disease from their herds to the human population.

Since 2012, the WHO has documented 1,190 cases of MERS with at least 440 deaths.

Photo credit: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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