Rebecca Kreston: Temple Monkeys & Pathogen Swapping
The interspecies contact between us humans and the macaques is intimate, and bites and scratches are highly common – yes, yes, they are indeed biting the hand that feeds. Within local populations, worshippers, temple workers, nuns and monks, and market workers, the contact may be frequent and habitual. As Lisa Jones-Engel and her team of researchers quickly discovered while studying temple monkeys in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Rebecca Kreston reports on the risks of these contacts for pathogen spillover from macaques to humans in Discover Magazine’s ‘Body Horrors’.
Many of the big name pathogens so familiar to us – tuberculosis, HIV, and SARS, to name a few – originated in animal species and evolved to infect humans. As such, animals are an important source of emerging infectious diseases that can threaten and have repeatedly threatened human populations. The international travel and tourism that increase the likelihood of intimate animal-human interactions also amplify the risks of novel cross-species pathogen transmission.
At monkey temples, macaques can infect humans with simian T cell lymphotropic viruses (STLV), simian retrovirus (SRV), simian foamy virus (SFV), and herpes B virus (5). And, of course, there’s always the viruses that we don’t know about, the unknown unknowns. For the millions of tourists to monkey temples throughout Southeast Asia, monkey temples are one of the most important “interfaces” that exist between humans and primates. For public health officials, monkey temples are actually “a potential point source for the global dispersal of infectious agents, as world travelers can return to their homes carrying novel infectious agents transmitted from macaques … creat[ing] the potential for rapid global dispersal of primate-borne infectious agents to human populations around the world” (4).