4 June 2008

Spread Of Human Virus In Chimps Confirmed

by Kate Melville

Building on earlier work that found evidence of human viruses in deceased chimpanzees, a new study by Virginia Tech researchers has confirmed that chimps in Tanzania's Mahale Mountains are becoming sick from a variant of a human paramyxovirus. While the findings, reported in the American Journal of Primatology, demonstrate that the respiratory disease can spread from humans to chimps, the researchers are cautious about identifying the exact transmission route.

"Although evidence increasingly suggests that infectious diseases may be transmitted from research teams and eco-tourists to endangered great apes, we believe that this is still a bit of a leap and more research must be conducted in order to establish a comfortable level of proof," said Virginia Tech's Dr. Taranjit Kaur. Kaur has been unraveling the mystery in collaboration with scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and researchers from Japan who are conducting behavioral studies on Mahale chimpanzees.

Establishment of a linkage between the spread of the disease and the growing eco-tourism industry, which has ironically been credited with protecting the animals, could effectively demolish an important source of economic development in the region. "Exactly where this virus has come from and the specific route of transmission remains unclear at this time," said Kaur, but she admits that mounting evidence suggests a linkage between visiting scientists and tourists and the viruses that are threatening the endangered chimpanzee population.

Kaur and her co-researchers have been living in western Tanzania on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, the second deepest lake in the world, as part of a broader research project that seeks to establish a long-term health-monitoring program for endangered great apes.

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Source: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University