FRIDAY, Aug. 24 (HealthDay News) -- A large number of chimpanzees at two sanctuaries in Africa carry drug-resistant strains of bacteria that could spread to endangered wild ape populations if the infected chimpanzees were returned to their natural habitat, a new study suggests.
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Researchers found that 36 of 62 (58 percent) of the chimpanzees tested at the sanctuaries in Uganda and Zambia carried drug-resistant, human-associated strains of Staphylococcus aureus. Nearly 10 percent of the staph cases in the chimpanzees showed signs of multidrug resistance, which is the most dangerous and hardest to treat form of S. aureus.
The study was published Aug. 21 in the American Journal of Primatology.
"One of the biggest threats to wild apes is the risk of acquiring novel pathogens from humans," study co-author Thomas Gillespie, a primate disease ecologist at Emory University, said in a university news release.
Antibiotic resistance is rare in wild chimpanzees and other apes, according to the release. Only one case of drug-resistant staph has been recorded in wild apes. But close contact with human caretakers means that apes in sanctuaries are at risk for infection.
"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," Gillespie said. "It mirrors some of the worst-case scenarios in U.S. hospitals and nursing homes."
The study authors hope their findings influence policies at ape sanctuaries, which are under increasing pressure to reintroduce rescued animals to the wild.
Gillespie also noted that the presence of drug-resistant staph in sanctuary chimpanzees may also pose a health risk to people, due to the close genetic link between 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," Gillespie said.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: Emory University, news release, Aug. 21, 2012