Study notes widening disease transmission by monkeys

Copyright: Fredrik Naumann / Panos

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  • Monkey parasites are now also monitored in humans across South-East Asia
  • The monkey malaria parasite is one example that has made the leap to humans
  • Scientists urge monitoring of human-monkey interface for disease transmission

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[JAKARTA] The rapid expansion of large-scale agriculture and other development ventures in South-East Asia increases the potential of disease transmission from monkeys to humans, says a study presented at the International Asian Primate Symposium in Bogor, Indonesia (18-21 August).

In an ongoing study based on zoonosis monitoring of the human-primate interface in South-East Asia, Michael Huffman, a primatologist from the Primate Research Institute in Japan’s Kyoto University, found that some types of monkey parasites are also found in humans in South-East Asia, which suggest the widespread distribution and transmission of diseases from monkeys to humans.
“In recent years, increased contact between humans and primates appears to be on the rise with the expansion of large-scale agriculture, rural development, eco-tourism and the human uses of previously unexploited habitat,” says Huffman.
He cites the monkey malaria parasite (Plasmodium knowlesi) as one example that has made the leap from monkeys to humans. It is now infecting people in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. In Sri Lanka, monkeys were also found to host parasitic species such as whipworm (Trichuris sp.) and hookworm which are threatening the local population.
Huffman suggests that there should be monitoring of the human-monkey interface and how the interaction could lead to disease transmission.
“Monitoring is important and we have to make sure if there is really transmission going on between humans and primates. It is important to make informed decisions on the correlation of primate health to human health,” Huffman tells SciDev.Net.
Joko Pamungkas, a scientist from the Primate Research Center of Bogor Agricultural University, Indonesia, admits that there has been no programme to monitor human and primate interface in Indonesia despite the rapid rate of forest clearings in the country.
Pamungkas says that he is conducting research on screening potential pathogens that could be transmitted to humans from street performer monkeys, a type of traditional entertainment that uses the monkey as the actor.
“Hopefully, we can screen all street performer monkeys in Indonesia,” he says.
As a health precaution and for animal welfare reasons, monkey street performances have been banned in Jakarta this year while another province, Bandung, is looking to implement a similar ban.
Boripat Siriaroonrat, a primatologist from the Zoological Park Conservation in Thailand, urges the same kind of screening for Thailand.
“In Thailand, issues on the health of primates and the transmission of diseases from primates to humans require more detailed studies to assess risks of disease transmission,” he says.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.