The problem with Jane’s chimps

Yes, we dodged the Mayan Apocalypse last month. Now, I’m worried about a real impending global disaster. This time, it’s a biological disaster involving monkeys. Not Mayans.

You may not realize that nearly two-thirds of emerging infectious diseases–often lethal to humans–derive from animals. And two-thirds of those diseases come directly from animals that live in the wild, such as chimps. 

I ended up thinking about chimps and diseases on New Year’s Day a few weeks back. You see, Jane Goodall served as the Grand Marshall for the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

Dr. Goodall, of course, is the world’s foremost authority on chimpanzees. These primates belong to one of three groups of “great apes.” They are nearest biologically to humans, together with gorillas in Africa and orangutans in Borneo. 

For many years, Dr. Goodall spent most of her time in the jungles of Central Africa studying chimpanzees. Today, she travels about 300 days per year, lecturing on preserving the chimps and their natural environment. 

And, indeed, chimps are well worth studying. Despite their small numbers, they are tremendously important for human health.  

Over the course of evolution, populations of the three “great ape” primates have remained small. In fact, many worry they will soon go extinct in the wild. By comparison, human populations bred during the industrial era to levels considered “overpopulation” by environmental groups. 

Biologists and anthropologists who study primates believe they know why chimpanzee populations remain scant…

Among the “great ape” primates, only humans can bear children every two years or so. Chimpanzees bear young only once every six years or so. Plus, unlike other mammals, great apes bear only single offspring at one time. Other mammals can produce litters with multiple offspring.

Further, human pregnancies can occur year-round. Other primates and most mammals can bear young at only certain times of the year.

Many believe that despite their shrinking numbers, chimpanzee and other primates act as sources of new deadly infectious diseases.

In addition…

Environmental disruptions–such as loss of habitat–interfere with wild chimp and other wildlife populations. And in fact, some believe it’s these environmental disruptions that lead directly to the surge of manmade epidemics.

For example…

Nearly 20 years ago, I worked on a “secret” public relations project. It had to do with the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) in monkeys. The government and vaccine industry feared the public would begin to believe that SIV led to the development of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

You see, my former professor at Penn, Dr. Hilary Koprowski had conducted clinical trials on a new polio vaccine in Central Africa during the 1950s. During this time, the SIV virus was thought to have been present through Central Africa and potentially contaminated this polio vaccine. The government worried that the public would catch on to this news and blame Dr. Koprowski and the polio vaccine for essentially “creating” HIV.

Of course, this was all scientific hogwash or “monkey shines.”

Dr. Koprowski is a distinguished virologist. I studied under him during medical school in the 1970s. Then, I became his honored colleague at the College of Physicians during the 1990s where I developed a special educational exhibit on “Emerging Infectious Diseases.”

The vaccine industry had asked me to review all the evidence pertaining to SIV, HIV and polio vaccine. I also wrote a script for a video that explained why SIV could not have been the source of HIV. 

The industry never released the video since this misplaced concern about SIV never did emerge as a major public health information issue. But our motto was “be prepared.”

We now do know that HIV in humans probably did result from contact with primate wildlife in some way. It just didn’t come from SIV in the polio vaccine.

And what does the future hold? Is there another HIV-like outbreak on the horizon that will be a lot easier to catch than AIDS-HIV? 

Many biologists believe that the emergence of Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease, and hundreds of other infectious outbreaks in recent decades directly result from  environmental disruptions.