Sanctuary Chimpanzees Have Potentially Dangerous Staph Bacteria
August 22, 2012

Sanctuary Chimpanzees Have Potentially Dangerous Staph Bacteria

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

A study on sanctuary chimps demonstrated that a particular breed of these animals contain drug-resistant, human-associated strains of the bacteria Staphlyococcus aureus, a pathogen that could infect endangered wild ape populations if chimpanzees from sanctuaries are allowed to return to their natural habitat.

The project was conducted by a group of veterinarians, ecologists, and microbiologists. It was the first to use modern sequencing technology of bacterial genomes in hospitals to better understand the spread of staph from humans to African wildlife. The results of the study were recently published in the American Journal of Primatology.

“One of the biggest threats to wild apes is the risk of acquiring novel pathogens from humans,” explained study co-author Thomas Gillespie, a primate disease ecologist at Emory University, in a prepared statement.

58 percent of the chimpanzees (36 in total) at sanctuaries in Uganda and Zambia appeared to have the drug-resistant staph. Almost 10 percent of the cases related to staph demonstrated multi-drug resistance. Researchers believe that the drug resistance could make it difficult to develop a cure for the pathogen. The scientists described how antibiotic resistance does not often occur in wild apes; on the other end of the spectrum, apes in sanctuaries have close contact with human caretakers and there is more cross-species pathogen transmission.

Even with these two varying cases, multi-drug resistant staph is a significant public health problem for humans. It can lead to 94,000 life-threatening infections and over 18,000 deaths in the U.S. At this time, scientists are not sure of the impact of the disease in the case that groups of native wild apes are exposed to the pathogen.

“We thought that our study would find some pathogen transmission from humans to the apes, but we were surprised at the prevalence of drug-resistant staph we found in the animals,” commented Gillespie in the statement. “It mirrors some of the worst-case scenarios in U.S. hospitals and nursing homes.”

With these varying results, the investigators hope that their findings can help influence the policies regarding ape sanctuaries. Many sanctuaries are currently under pressure to reintroduce rehabilitated animals to the wild. Researchers believe that sanctuaries are necessary in bridging animal welfare and species conservation.

“Animal sanctuaries care for and protect endangered animals confiscated by national authorities from animal dealers or private holders. Reintroduction of wildlife housed in sanctuaries to their natural habitat is considered an important conservation tool for endangered species; however, for sanctuaries to have a net positive effect for species conservation, it is critical that reintroduction efforts do not endanger resident wildlife populations,” the authors wrote in the report.

Furthermore, the drug-resistant staph in sanctuary chimpanzees may be a possible risk to humans as there is a strong correlation in the genetic makeup of primates and people.

“The chimpanzee may serve as an incubator where the pathogen can adapt and evolve, and perhaps jump back to humans in a more virulent form,” concluded Gillespie in the statement.

Researchers hope to continue their research in the future with more in-depth studies.

“Further data are needed to understand carriage and disease development in sanctuary great apes to pinpoint the effective risk for wild populations. Also, guidelines for the management of sanctuary great apes carrying human S. aureus strains will need to be developed,” the authors discussed in the report.