Chimps Infected with Human Diseases Pose Possible Risk to Reintroduction Efforts

| Fri Aug. 31, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

This post first appeared on the Scientific American website.

When a wild animal is rescued from poachers or wildlife smugglers, conservationists usually make an effort to rehabilitate it and return it to life in its native habitat. But what if the animal contracted a disease from humans during captivity that could then be transmitted back to the rest of its species? Should that animal still be released?

A team of scientists working in Africa recently encountered just that conundrum. They were looking for evidence of pathogen transmission from humans to apes at two chimpanzee sanctuaries in Uganda and Zambia, but were surprised by what they found: 58 percent of the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) tested were found to be carrying drug-resistant strains of the staph bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. Ten of the human veterinarians working at the sanctuaries also carried the bacteria. The level of infection "mirrors some of the worst-case scenarios in US hospitals and nursing homes," team member Thomas Gillespie, a primate disease ecologist and associate professor at Emory University, said in a prepared release.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, staph can cause potentially fatal infections of the skin or blood. Drug-resistant staph causes more than 18,000 human deaths in the US every year. The strains of staph bacteria at the sanctuaries were found to be resistant at various levels to penicillin, oxacillin, trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, erythromycin, tetracycline and clindamycin. None of the humans or chimps at the sanctuaries showed any signs of illness from the bacteria.

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