Monkeys being imported into the US could potentially spread deadly infections – including one a described as a “bioterrorism risk” – according to animal rights activists.
The animals – imported from Cambodia and intended mainly for laboratory use – are known to be infected with a bacterium called Burkholderia pseudomallei , – which can cause the potentially deadly disease Melioidosis.
Melioidosis has a mortality rate of up to 50% and B pseudomallei has been described by the US Centre for Disease Control [CDC] as a “Tier 1 select agent” with potential as a bioterrorism agent.
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A report from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] says that there have been at least six cases of Burkholderia pseudomallei identified in primates imported from Cambodia to the US and there are concerns that the authorities in America are not taking the issue seriously enough.
Dr Lisa Jones-Engel, one of PETA’s senior science advisers, told the Guardian: “There is no indication that the CDC or research industries have been transparent with the public about these diseased monkeys.”
Long-tailed macaques, also known as crab-eating macaques or cynomolgus monkeys, are often used by medical researchers because of their striking physiological similarity to humans.
But monkeys infected with B pseudomallei can spread the bacterium into the environment, says Dr Jones-Engel: “Monkeys imported from Asia can harbour the Burkholderia pathogen for months, shedding the bacteria via their faeces, urine, blood and saliva into the environment. The CDC knows the danger to humans and has failed to warn the public.”
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Although direct transmission of the disease from animals to humans is rare, it has been known.
One average, around 12 human cases are reported year in the US, mostly in people who have travelled to Asia or northern Australia.
Dr Nedim Buyukmihci, a veterinary adviser for Action for Primates, said: “Non-human primates in a free-living situation are unlikely to spread disease to people. But, when they are trapped, transported or confined, they become highly distressed and can shed disease-causing organisms.
This data emphasises the potentially significant public health risk of transporting and using non-human primates in laboratories.”
Kry Masphal, director of Cambodia's Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity, was arrested at New York’s Kennedy International Airport earlier this month, accused of abusing his position to promote the trade in endangered long-tailed macaques.
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