Rare Disease Report

Monkeys in Florida Threatening to Spread Fatal Virus

JANUARY 11, 2018
Mathew Shanley
Roaming monkeys in Florida are being removed by the state’s wildlife managers because of the growing fear that they are excreting a virus that can be dangerous to humans.

A study published on Wednesday in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prompted researchers from the universities of Florida and Washington to warn Florida’s wildlife agency that certain monkeys could be considered a public health concern.

The data reveals that a growing population of rhesus macaques in Silver Springs state park could be carrying herpes B in their saliva, as opposed to simply carrying the virus, which is common in the species. Because it is present in bodily fluids, the monkeys have the potential to spread the disease more easily than usual.

Herpes B was first identified in 1932 following the death of a young physician who was bitten by a monkey while researching the virus that causes poliomyelitis. It is classified as an alphaherpesvirus, meaning it consists of a subset of herpes viruses that travel within the hosts using the peripheral nerves. Since the discovery of the disease, there have been less than 50 documented cases in humans.

These monkeys are native to Asia and are one among Florida’s many non-native wildlife species. Historical contact with the public have led to 2 partial park closures since 2016. They have been spotted in trees in the Ocala, Sarasota and Tallahassee areas, The Guardian reports.

“Without management action, the presence and continued expansion of non-native rhesus macaques in Florida can result in serious human health and safety risks including human injury and transmission of disease,” Thomas Eason, assistant executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said in a statement.

Human visitors to the park are most likely to be exposed to the disease, and any contact with the monkeys’ saliva, urine, or feces could lead to contraction. While there are no official statistics on monkeys attacking humans in the park, a state-sponsored study conducted in the 1990s found that there were at least 31 incidents reported resulting in human injury between 1977 and 1984.

The researchers estimate that up to 30% of the scores of Florida’s feral macaques could be active carriers of herpes B, and in an environment where frequent interaction between animals and humans occur, there is high potential for scratches and bites. Regardless of how many of the monkeys are carrying the virus, however, it is still unknown how easily transferrable it is.

“Herpes B virus infection is extremely rare in people, but when it does occur, it can result in severe brain damage or death if the patient is not treated immediately,” CDC spokesman Ian Branam said in a statement.

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