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Camel milk magic - myth or marvel?

Anti-infection, anti-cancer, anti-diabetes: these are bold claims to make about any substance, but scientific and commercial interest is growing in such claims that have long been made about the milk of camels. Camels are kept in over a hundred countries, and from Mongolia to Morocco there are traditional sayings or practices in which the alleged healing properties of camel milk and milk products are shared and passed from generation to generation. But are the healing properties of camel milk all myth, or can they be proved and provide a bright future for camel dairying?

Camel milk traded at market
Camel milk traded at market

"I have studied camels in many countries," says Bernard Faye of the France-based research organisation CIRAD (Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement). "From the Rift Valley of Africa to Central Asia you often hear it said that camel milk can cure; diabetes, tuberculosis, stomach ulcers, gastro-enteritis, cancer are all claimed to be cured." Not surprisingly, scientists have attempted to verify or disprove the claims. What they have found is that there appears to be some scientific basis for some of the claimed cures, but that the experimental design has not always been sound. Essentially, there are two ways to test the curative capacity of camel milk. First is to have a rigorous experimental procedure and, with humans, double blind trials. The second is to have more information on the constituents of camel milk, specifically the components which could be responsible for the claimed medical properties.

Characteristics of camel milk

Close analysis of camel milk does show some medicinal potential. The milk protein lactoferrin, which is present in large quantities in camel milk (ten times higher than in cow milk), does have some anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. Fermented camel milk is high in lactic bacteria, which have been shown to be effective against pathogens including Bacillus, Staphylococcus, Salmonella and Escherichia. And vitamin C content in camel milk is generally double that in cow's milk. In Russia, Kazakhstan and India there are many examples of camel milk - as much as a litre a day - being prescribed to hospital patients to aid recovery from tuberculosis, Crohn's disease and diabetes.

A natural component of cow and human milk, lactoferrin is also found throughout the human body; it occurs in all secretions that bathe mucous membranes, such as saliva, tears, bronchial and nasal secretions, hepatic bile and pancreatic fluids. Exactly how lactoferrin functions is not entirely clear, but it is known to enhance the immune response, both directly and indirectly (passively,) in reaction to a wide range of immune challenges, and is an essential factor in the immune response in humans.

The health-promoting properties of camel milk are a strong boost for sales and, in certain regions such as the Middle East, they are the driver for intensification of camel dairying. According to Ulrich Wernery of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, it is time for the camel to be managed in some of the ways now well established and successful with milk cows. "I'm convinced that where there's money, such as in the United Arab Emirates, there will be dairy camel operations in the future, just like the world has now with dairy cows. Maybe there will even be high-tech rotary milking parlours," says Wernery. Trials are also proceeding to increase milk yields through intensification and breeding. "We are looking at solar systems to power small-scale milk units. And, we're looking at the genetic potential of the animal too because, in two generations, we will design and breed a camel to suit an automatic system," he claims.

Unique immunoglobulin

Will this system be able to produce the quantities of camel milk required - especially if a potentially large new customer appears on the scene? There has been longstanding interest in the potential to harness the power of lactoferrin in treatments for certain illnesses, but now a whole new constituent of camel milk is under scrutiny. "The medical sector is very interested in the immunoglobulin of camel milk. This is the substance that contributes to immunity against infection. The immunoglobulin of camels is quite unique in the animal world," says Faye. If successful, the research could lead to the development of a whole new family of vaccinations against some of the biggest killer diseases of our time, such as cancer. Not surprisingly, a leading pharmaceutical company has camel milk on its agenda of research.

A medical breakthrough could bring about a huge leap in the respect shown for camels and those who keep them. But could it bring riches to camel owners? Faye has his doubts. "Of course it could be a solution for camel development, but there is also a risk that the pharmaceutical industry could isolate the molecule they are interested in and synthesise it artificially. Then it would be: 'Thank you camel but now you can go back to where you belong.'"

Date published: January 2005


Have your say

Has anyone any research about camel butter? (posted by: Kitty)

I drink camel milk daily cause i have some camels .... I tes... (posted by: Mohamed othman)

I drink Camel milk everyday cause i love it and am in Africa... (posted by: Dek)

I don't drink camel milk because I have never tried it. (posted by: Levi McMahan)


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