About AIDS

Hey, Y'all, Don't Touch the Monkey

An appalling item in last week's National Geographic collides with recent research findings to raise some serious questions about AIDS, ebola and hemorragic diseases, jungles, monkeys, viruses, and our brethren in Africa; and more generally, some musings on humankind's relationship to our environment.

In the Geographic article, the author tells of African village hunters finding dead, bloated monkeys in the jungle, which they field dressed and took back for their families to eat, rather than bothering to hunt something else. Sometimes the results were immediate, deadly disasters. (Scientists have wondered where ebola and other hemorragic fevers are "reservoired" in nature; such scavaging practices may provide a partial answer.)

However, this story, joined with a recent African study, also raises issues of a more long-term nature. Most scientists agree that monkey, or simian, immunodeficiency viruses (SIV) became HIV when they eventually transferred to humans (zoonosis) through hunting accidents and eating raw or undercooked monkey meat. New information shows that among a large cohort of Cameroon's monkeys, 18% of them carry SIV strains which could easily make the monkey-human jump, plus another 14% which might be able to do so; included were several subtypes never seen before.

Around the world, as people blunder about in previously untrammeled areas, with little regard for other species and ecosystems, nature's pockets of disease-causing organisms are disrupted and unleashed, sometimes on mankind. Is AIDS just the canary in the coal mine?

(For further information, see National Geographic, March 2001; and Science News, 10 Feb 2001, Vol. 159, No. 6, P. 86; Seppa, N. www.sciencenews.org.)

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