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Humans share more diseases with primates than previously thought

Trinity College Dublin study shows that emerging diseases may come from more distant relatives such as baboons.

A western lowland gorilla munches on a monkey chow biscuit in Chicago Zoo.
A western lowland gorilla munches on a monkey chow biscuit in Chicago Zoo.
Image: M. Spencer Green/AP/Press Association Images

HUMANS SHARE MORE diseases with primates than originally thought, according to Trinity College scientists, in a new study that aims to predict what diseases humans may suffer from in the future.

Looking at many emerging infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, it found that in preventing future diseases we may have to focus more on what primates we have the most contact with rather than those we are most closely related to.

“Emerging diseases are a problem for humans as we have not had them before which means we have no immunity against them,” Dr Natalie Cooper, Assistant Professor in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin, told TheJournal.ie.

“Aids and HIV only emerged 20 years ago in the human population but a similar virus was present in chimpanzees for much longer. The emergence of it in humans probably came from people butchering and hunting them and getting infections in that way. However, we found that we should also be concerned about more distantly related primates such as baboons, which are all over Africa and that we have a lot of contact with.”

Using a large database of primate diseases and various statistical models, the authors investigated how many pathogens, a micro-organism that carries disease, humans shared with different kinds of primates. Previous research indicated that the number of pathogens two species share depends on how closely related they are.

However, the authors found that humans share far more than expected with Old World monkeys such as baboons, macaques and lemurs and far fewer than expected with closer relatives such as orangutans

“If we are going to predict where more diseases will come from in the future we need to do find more information on wildlife diseases,” said Dr Cooper.

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