[monkeywire] Human Viruses Jumping to Wild Apes
charlie_reis at ekit.com
charlie_reis at ekit.com
Sun Feb 10 14:55:02 EST 2008
Human Viruses Jumping to Wild Apes
for National Geographic News
February 4, 2008
Scientists who study endangered great apes in Africa may be a mixed
blessingwhile they may scare off poachers, people also carry with
them dangerous diseases, a new study says.
The research found that recent respiratory disease outbreaks among
chimpanzee and gorilla populations come from great-ape researchers and
But at the same time human presence deters poachers, acting as a boon
to population numbers.
"This shows, in our opinion, that we have a stronger positive effect
than ... a negative effect," said senior study author Fabian
Leendertz, a wildlife epidemiologist at Robert Koch-Institut in
Between 1999 and 2006 three chimpanzee study groups in Taï National
Park in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) suffered a total of five outbreaks
of respiratory disease. Nearly all of the chimpanzees showed symptoms
of illness, and many of them died.
Genetic analysis of the virus cultures collected from the dead
chimpanzees revealed that the pathogens were human. "We were a bit
shocked because this was the first time that it was ever really proven
that an acute disease-causing pathogen has jumped from us to the great
apes and caused damage there," Leendertz said.
Tony Goldberg, a veterinarian and disease ecologist at the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was not involved in the research.
"We've known for a long time that wild apes have suffered epidemics of
respiratory disease," he said.
"And for a long time people have suspected that human respiratory
viruses were the culpritbut we've never had the smoking gun evidence
The study appeared in a recent issue of the journal Current Biology.
Viruses found in the apes are associated with respiratory disease in
human infants and children. As people grow older and develop immunity,
they tend to be less and less affected, spreading them as easily as
the common cold without any visible symptoms.
"You could have a tourist or researcher who feels absolutely no
symptoms at all but is carrying one of these viruses," Goldberg said.
Because there's no telling who could be infectious, study author
Leendertz now considers the great-ape research camp a "contaminated area."
To stem the transmission, members of his research team have started to
wear masks, which reduce the spread of virus-laden particles.
They also have disinfection baths for boots and clothes at the edges
of the camp, and researchers make sure to wear different garments and
footwear within the camp.
Apes can also transmit diseases to people. In recent years outbreaks
of the Ebola virusa severe, often-fatal hemorraghic feverhave arisen
in Africa, most likely sparked when a person contacted an infected
ape. And the origin of the HIV virus has been traced to a group of
chimpanzees in Cameroon.
The Big Virus Swap
"It's a tricky issue, because ... we love them, we study them, we know
all of them by name, but at the same time we bring a big danger to
them," Leendertz said.
While researchers and tourists may be eager to adopt hygiene measures,
the people who live in the vicinity of great apes may still be
exposing the animals to viruses.
Many chimpanzees and gorillas breach the forest boundary every so
often and enter human settlements.
"Contrary to what people tend to generally think, these apes are
actually sharing habitats with people," Goldberg said.
Some experts advocate focusing on health care for people who live at
national park borders.
"The idea [is], if you can improve their public health, you indirectly
improve the health and conservation of the primates," Goldberg added.
New Form of Pollution?
This is not the first time that our germs have damaged ecosystems.
In one case gorillas died from scabies-mite infections, most probably
contracted by handling human clothing, Goldberg said.
In 1994 in Serengeti National Park, 1,000 of 3,500 lions died of
canine distemper, which they contracted from wild dogs. Humans were
indirectly the culprit, since their domestic dogs helped spread the
(Related news: "Wild Dog Urine May Be Used as "Fences" in Africa"
[March 11, 2004].)
In addition Asian elephant populations of Nepal are suffering as their
numbers dwindle from human tuberculosis.
"We are in the situation where space can be a bit limited and we are
moving closer and closer together," Leendertz said.
"These remote habits are not so remote anymore."
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