- A team of Cameroonian and US researchers have identified a new virus, related to HIV, that is transmitted to humans through bushmeat mainly from monkeys and great apes. While it is not known whether the virus is harmful to humans, the researchers warn against the possible consequences of novel viruses crossing from one species to another.
People in Central Africa who hunt monkeys and great apes are routinely being infected by retroviruses, the class of viruses that includes HIV, the study showed. An international team of researchers from Cameroon and the US has now documented, for the first time, the transmission of a retrovirus from primates to people in natural settings.
In the 20 March edition of 'The Lancet', researchers from the Cameroonian Ministry of Health, the US Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and other institutions reported the presence of antibodies for simian foamy virus (SFV) in 1 percent of the people tested.
People infected with SFV came from multiple isolated villages in Cameroon and were infected with viruses from at least three separate species of monkey and ape. The researchers assume that the results are valid throughout the Central African region.
- Simian foamy virus should be considered a novel retrovirus of humans, said Nathan Wolfe, the lead author of the study. "Researchers have documented animal to human transmission of SFV in the laboratory, but our study is the first to demonstrate that these retroviruses are actively crossing into people," the US scientist added.
According to Mr Wolfe, the hunting and butchering of monkeys plays a role in retroviral emergence. "It is in all of our interests to put into place economic alternatives to help people move away from hunting and eating these animals. In addition to preserving endangered species, such development efforts will reduce the risk that ongoing cross-species transmission of retroviruses and other pathogens could spark future epidemics similar to HIV," added Mr Wolfe.
For the study, Mr Wolfe and his colleagues examined blood samples from 1,099 individuals from Cameroon, who were taking part in an HIV prevention programme. All of the study participants reported having some exposure to non-human primate blood, which occurred primarily through hunting and butchering. The blood samples were screened for SFV antibodies, which were detected in 10 of the samples.
Individuals were identified as being infected with viruses from three different primate species, which included De Brazza's guenon, mandrill and gorilla. De Brazza's and mandrill are also naturally infected with simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIV), the same class of viruses from which HIV originated.
- It is not known if SFV is harmful to humans nor whether it can be transferred from person to person or through blood transfusions, the study noted. However, further research on these questions was now ongoing.
The SFV infections in this study were from several geographically isolated locations. "This suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, retroviral zoonosis is widespread and arising from various locations where people are naturally exposed to mandrills, gorillas and other monkeys and apes," commented Donald S. Burke, co-author of the study.
Although the study for the first times proves the transmission of a retrovirus from monkeys to humans via bushmeat, the authors do not comment on whether HIV, the virus causing AIDS, has come the same way. Many researchers assume that HIV has crossed over from monkey or great apes to humans - fort example via bushmeat - but the theory has never been properly proven.
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