Days may be numbered for rhesus macaques living in the Sunshine State. A damning report, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID), found that as many as 30 percent of monkeys living in and around Silver Springs State Park in Florida could be infected with a deadly strain of the herpes virus (McHV-1). Now, wildlife officials are calling for their removal.
Herpes B (nicknamed the monkey B virus) isn’t particularly harmful to macaques but can be deadly in humans. In roughly half of all cases, infections transmitted through bodily fluids cause fatal brain swellings if left untreated. Fortunately, it seems to be extremely rare – there have only been 50 documented cases worldwide, most of which have taken place in a lab setting.
As experts point out, though, this could be due to poor reporting rather than low incidence rates.
“It will be important to figure out whether underreporting, low quantities, or low transmissibility would explain why infections in tourists have not been reported,” David Civitello, Emory University biology professor, explained to the Associated Press in an email after reviewing the study.
To find out exactly how prevalent McHV-1 is among Florida’s free-roaming macaques, researchers from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), the University of Florida, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) collected and analyzed samples of feces, saliva, and viral DNA from monkeys between 2000 and 2016.
The results reveal that the virus is much more widespread than previously thought and, though a monkey-to-human transmission is highly unlikely, they recommend removing the animal as a precautionary measure. How exactly they plan to do this, however, they are yet to specify.
Rhesus macaques are not native to the Sunshine State. They were brought over from Asia in an effort to boost tourism during the 1930s when the launch of the Tarzan franchise triggered a craze for exotic primates. The current population descends from just 12 individuals. There are now thought to be hundreds wandering around Silver Springs State Park and its neighboring forests.
While feeding the monkeys is a popular activity among visitors to the park, they can be remarkably vicious (as you can see in the video below). Between 1977 and 1984, the FWC reported 23 human injuries from macaque bites. The paper admits that this is probably an underestimate and that macaque biting and scratching is far more common than the data suggests – a fact that is especially concerning given the new stats on the pervasiveness of the monkey B virus.
“As of December 12, 2017, no evidence of human transmission from free-ranging macaques to humans exists. However, this pathogen should be considered a low-incidence, high-consequence risk, and adequate public health measures should be taken,” the study authors conclude.