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Despite a significant global increase in camel milk production and consumption, few studies have examined the complex health impacts of consuming raw or unpasteurized camel products, especially in herding populations.
In many high-income countries, consumption of raw dairy products has increased with the understudied belief that it has health benefits. This includes raw camel milk, cheese, yogurt, and other products being sold at American farmers’ markets. Though newer to diets in the United States and Europe, people in many rural areas in low- and middle-income countries, especially herding populations, have relied on unpasteurized, soured, and fresh livestock milks, including camel milk, as a primary source of nutrition for centuries.
Given the increased consumption, including among new populations, individuals all over the world are at risk of foodborne illnesses transmitted through the consumption of these unpasteurized milk and other food products.
A new study from Amira Roess, professor in George Mason University’s Department of Global and Community Health, examined the associations between self-reported symptoms of animal- or food-based illness and people’s interaction with animals and food preparation in the Somali region of Ethiopia. The region is politically insecure, has poor access to health care, and has a limited public works infrastructure, which makes people more likely to drink fresh or unrefrigerated milk.
Researchers found that consumption of fresh raw milk was not associated with illness, but consumption of days-old unrefrigerated raw milk was.
“These results support other studies on the dangers of consuming unrefrigerated days-old milk and add to the literature. There are limited data on disease risk factors among livestock farmers and other populations where livestock herding, particularly of dromedary (one-humped) camels are dominant,” said Roess.
Zoonotic (transmission from animal to human) and foodborne disease interventions in domesticated, non-mobile animals have proven successful. However, surveillance of camels and other livestock herded by nomadic and semi-nomadic farmers is challenging because of these populations’ mobility, the informality of these livestock economies, and the poverty and instability of many local and regional agricultural and health bureaus in Ethiopia.
“Understanding the potential risks of human exposures to zoonotic and foodborne pathogens in livestock and livestock milks is central to promoting food safety, food security, and public health,” said Roess.
The paper, “Associations between unpasteurized camel and other milk consumption, livestock ownership, and self-reported febrile and gastrointestinal symptoms among semi-pastoralists and pastoralists in the Somali Region of Ethiopia,” was published in Epidemiology & Infection Volume 151 (2023) and online in May 2022.
The paper is co-authored by F. M. Hosh of the Public Health Consultant, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia; L. C. Morton, N. Bestul, and J. Davis of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University; and L. Carruth of the School of International Service, American University. The research was supported by the Internal Faculty Grants program at the School of International Service at American University and the Cross-Disciplinary Research Fund at George Washington University.
Ethiopian households were randomly selected to participate in a cross-sectional survey to collect demographic data, self-reported symptoms, health care-seeking behaviors, animal husbandry, food animal preparation and consumption practices, and sanitation variables. The study was limited by the reliance on self-reporting of illness and exposure.
“Future public health interventions should continue to invest in improving access to community-based veterinary care in places where herding farmers settle. Public health officials should also invest in the regulatory infrastructure necessary for the safe use of dairy products—especially in the rural and remote communities where livestock herding takes place,” said Roess. The team also determined that more research is needed to identify pathogens and major routes of disease transmission from camel milk.
The team is currently conducting follow-up research supported by the National Science Foundation on camel herding practices, their link to the emergence of MERS-Coronavirus, and what that means for COVID-19.