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Primate Viruses: Do They Pose A Risk To Humans? - 2004-03-24

Recently, Johns Hopkins University researchers announced that the hunting and eating of bushmeat in Africa are exposing people to primate viruses. While it is not yet known what the health implications are, researchers fear it’s possible the virus could someday mutate and become as dangerous as HIV. VOA spoke to one of the researchers, whose work was published in the medical journal, The Lancet.

In Cameroon, Judith Torimiro is among the Johns Hopkins researchers studying the Simian Foamy Retrovirus, or SFV. It’s found in monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees, prime sources of food commonly called bushmeat. There are documented cases of zoo workers being infected with the virus. But little information has been gathered on African hunters.

"The focus of our research was – and still is – to look at some pathogens that are prevalent in Central African populations and in particular in rural populations. Looking at people who have been exposed or have been in close contact with bush animals."

Ms. Torimiro says viruses or pathogens that can spread from one vertebrate to another – for example, from a monkey to a human – are called zoonotic.

"It has been documented in the past that bush animals have pathogens that could be transmitted to humans – and particularly in this region, in the Central African region. Because the AIDS epidemic, which finally is a pandemic that has affected everyone in the world is thought to be a zoonotic infection. And since the biodiversity of primates in the Central African region is quite diverse, we thought it was a good opportunity to look at exposure of the individuals who live in this region to non-human primates and also other bush animals."

She says little is known how the Simian Foamy Virus affects people. And it’s not known whether it could evolve into something potentially fatal – the way Simian Immunodeficiency Virus may have transformed into HIV, the AIDS virus, 50 or more years ago.

"The population could be running certain risks that they do not know because of the activities that are being carried out. For example, like hunting and most of these activities are culturally based. It’s a means of subsistence. But the risks that go with these activities may not be fully understood by the population. So, from these findings we have to educate the people who practice these activities more. And help them to reduce the risks of exposure to animal blood."

Professor Nathan Wolfe, who led the Johns Hopkins team, is quoted as saying, “Now we’re forced to think these viruses are infecting humans on a much more frequent basis.”