More than a quarter of the rhesus macaque monkeys at a Florida state park carry the deadly herpes B virus, according to new research published in Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal, “Emerging Infectious Diseases.”
And scientists warn that the virus, which is relatively common and mild in the primates, can be lethal to humans.
As many as 30 percent of the rhesus macaque monkeys at the Silver Springs State Park in Central Florida excrete the virus through saliva and other bodily fluids, researchers found through blood sample data of 317 rhesus macaques examined in Marion County, Florida, between 2000 and 2012. Approximately 4-14 percent of the primates released the virus in their spit during the fall breeding season.
The presence of the virus in the monkeys' feces and saliva is of particular concern for visitors and park workers, who could be endangered if scratched or bitten, according to the study.
Rhesus macaques were first introduced to the Florida park in the 1930s in an effort to increase tourism. The primates are native to South and East Asia. By 2012, according to the Verge, 1,000 rhesus macaques were “trapped and removed before public outrage stopped the control effort.” In 2015, about 175 macaques were living in Silver Springs State Park.
“The headlines have already taken off about this, but there’s really a lot we still don’t know about herpes B in wild monkeys,” study author Samantha Wisely, a wildlife biologist at the University of Florida, told The Verge. “There’s really a low risk of you getting it, but if you get it, there are going to be very high consequences.”
In humans, the virus causes a devastating brain disease that, if left untreated, is deadly about 70 percent of the time.
According to the CDC, only 50 people have contracted the disease since 1932 and there hasn’t been a single case documented from wild macaques. But 21 of the 50 recorded cases were fatal.
“This pathogen should be considered a low-incidence, high-consequence risk, and adequate public health measures should be taken,” the researchers wrote.
Members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission responded to the public health concern.
“Without management action, the presence and continued expansion of non-native rhesus macaques in Florida can result in serious human health and safety risks including human injury and transmission of disease,” Thomas Eason, assistant executive director of the commission, said in a statement.
Spokeswoman Carli Segelson told the Associated Press that the commission supports the removal of the primates to reduce any posed threat.
In the meantime, Wisely told The Verge, try not to touch the monkeys when you see them. “It doesn’t do the wildlife any good, and it doesn’t do you any good.”