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Wisconsin researchers worry this fatal disease killing chimpanzees will jump to humans

Wisconsin researchers recently linked a disease that kills chimpanzees to humans because of the similarities in genetic material

A chimpanzee looks out of his enclosure as visitors trickle into Zoo Miami, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Miami. The zoo reopened Tuesday as Miami-Dade and Broward counties moved to Phase 2 of reopening on Monday.
A chimpanzee looks out of his enclosure as visitors trickle into Zoo Miami, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Miami. The zoo reopened Tuesday as Miami-Dade and Broward counties moved to Phase 2 of reopening on Monday.
Associated Press

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently expressed concerns that a fatal disease known for killing chimpanzees could jump to humans because of the similarities in hereditary material, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

What happened?

The scientists recently published a report in the journal Nature Communication that a specific disease that kills chimpanzees has been linked to a species of bacterium, called Sarcina troglodyte.

Sarcina troglodyte reportedly causes Epizootic Neurologic and Gastroenteric Syndrome, which can be fatal to chimpanzees, per Kaiser Health News.

  • “So far, the research has not found the bacteria to be the sole cause of the disease, but it has opened a new window on the bacterial genus Sarcina, which may include more unidentified species that threaten the health of humans and animals,” according to The New York Times.
  • The illness hasn’t been found in humans yet, according to researchers. But chimpanzees and humans share 99% of their DNA, so it’s possible there could be a jump in the future, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Key quote

  • “There are very few pathogens that infect chimpanzees without infecting humans and very few pathogens that infect humans without infecting chimpanzees,” said Tony Goldberg, one of the authors of the paper and a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of epidemiology, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • “The staff at Tacugama (Sanctuary in Freetown, Sierra Leone) are super worried. It looks like something we need to be concerned about,” Goldberg said.

Examples

Diseases have been known to jump between the two species. Ebola and HIV jumped from apes to humans. Similarly, influenza and polio jumped from humans to apes, according to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Context

Chimpanzees had been dying in Sierra Leone for more than a decade before Goldberg began to research what was happening, according to The New York Times.

Still, Goldberg doesn’t see the bacterium as a widespread issue yet. But he told The New York Times that it’s something to keep an eye on.

  • “It falls into the category of things we should watch,” he said, “but not fret about.”
  • He said it’s unlikely it will start a pandemic.