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.
, or staph for short, is not only a major human health problem but could also be a risk to wild ape populations if sanctuary apes were reintroduced into their natural habitat, a new study has revealed.
The study was conducted by veterinarians, microbiologists and ecologists and was pioneering as it was the first to apply the same modern sequencing technology of bacterial genomes used in hospitals to understand better the transmission of staph from humans to African wildlife.
Drug-resistant staph was found in 58 per cent of the chimps at two sanctuaries located in Zambia and Uganda, which are both under pressure to release animals back into the wild. Additionally, ten per cent of the staph cases in chimpanzees showed signs of multi-drug resistance, the most dangerous and difficult to cure form of the pathogen.
The study was led by Fabian Leendertz, head of emerging zoonosis at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin. Other co-authors were from the University Hospital Munster in Germany, the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda, and the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia.
"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," said Thomas Gillespie, co-author of the study. "It mirrors some of the worst-case scenarios in US hospitals and nursing homes."
Gillespie went on to say that these recent finding may pose a risk to humans due to the close relationship between the primates and humans.
"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," he warned.
Antibiotic resistance is extremely rare in wild apes, with only one case of staph ever being identified before, a huge contrast to the animals within ape sanctuaries who are exposed to and have close contact with human caretakers promoting cross-species pathogen transmission.
Researchers on the project, whose findings were published in the American Journal of Primatology
hope that the results of their research might influence ape sanctuaries as many are facing the pressure to release their captive animals back into the wild.
"Both animal welfare and conservation are ethical imperatives, but what promotes one does not inevitably benefit the other. That’s just one of the many things that we’re learning as we work to conserve and care for chimpanzees," said Gillespie. Sanctuaries are vital in species conservation and animal welfare, as well as for easing the transition back into the wild.
Researchers have warned, however, that due to the ever-increasing human population in sub-Saharan Africa – and therefore the resulting overlap of primate habitats with human activity – this could prove to be a risk of such cross-species of pathogens.