Human virus blamed in gorilla deaths

by Mar 28, 2011Great Apes

A human virus that causes respiratory disease has been linked to the death of wild mountain gorillas, U.S. and African researchers say.

Researchers say the finding confirms that serious diseases can pass from people to these endangered animals, a release from the University of California, Davis reported Monday.

“Because there are fewer than 800 living mountain gorillas, each individual is critically important to the survival of their species,” Mike Cranfield of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project and a UC Davis wildlife veterinarian, said. “But mountain gorillas are surrounded by people, and this discovery makes it clear that living in protected national parks is not a barrier to human diseases.”

Humans and gorillas share approximately 98 percent of their DNA, raising concerns that gorillas may be susceptible to many of the infectious diseases that affect people, researchers said. This is of particular concern because mountain gorillas have come into increasing contact with humans during the past 100 years and, in fact, national parks where the gorillas are protected in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are surrounded by the densest human populations in continental Africa, they said.

Gorilla tourism, while helping the gorillas by funding the national parks that shelter them, brings thousands of people into contact with mountain gorillas annually, along with diseases that can prove fatal to gorillas.

“The type of infection we see most frequently is respiratory, which can range from mild colds to severe pneumonia,” Linda Lowenstine, a veterinary pathologist with the UC Davis Mountain Gorilla One Health Program, said.

A report on the 2009 deaths of two mountain gorillas infected with a human virus was published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, a publication of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.