Experts Say The Troop Of Wild Monkeys Carrying A Deadly Strand Of Herpes In Florida Could Double In Population by 2022

Not to freak everyone out, but remember the 1995 movie Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman and Renee Russo where monkeys with a deadly virus threaten the lives of everyone in a small town? Well, let’s just say that scenario might be on its way to becoming a reality.

Or at least a growing population of wild rhesus macaque monkeys in central Florida have experts worried. That’s because the monkeys carry a potentially fatal virus—Herpes B.

Also known as B virus, monkey B virus, herpesvirus simiae, and herpesvirus Ba, this form of the Herpes virus is found among a variety of macaques, including rhesus macaques, pig-tailed macaques, and cynomolgus monkeys (also called crab-eating or long-tailed macaques).

The Centers for Disease Control states:

Macaque monkeys are thought to be the natural host for the virus. Macaques infected with B virus usually have no or only mild symptoms. Macaques housed in primate facilities usually become B virus positive by the time they reach adulthood. However, infection in macaques can only be transmitted during active viral shedding through body fluids.”

Though B virus infections are said to be extremely rare in humans, when they do occur, the CDC reports:

“…infection can result in severe brain damage or death if the patient is not treated soon after exposure (see Risks for Infection and Treatment sections). Infection in humans is typically caused by animal bites or scratches or by mucosal contact with body fluid or tissue.”

Scientists in The Journal of Wildlife Management warn that the current population of these simians, set at 300 according to National Geographic, located oddly enough in Silver Spring State Park, are likely to double in size by 2022.

Native to South and Southeast Asia, the monkeys (also known by their species name, Macaca mulatta) are thought to be the children of six rhesus macaques who, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, are said to have made their home in the state park in the late 1930s when they were brought there from Asia to draw more tourists to the area now known as Silver Springs State Park.

The New York Post reports there have been at least 50 documented incidents of people being bitten or scratched by infected rhesus macaques while in captivity, then contracting Herpes B virus as a result. According to the University of Florida, almost half of all those human cases ended in death, while the others who contracted the disease “suffered permanent neurological damage.”

National Geographic reports that at least 30 percent of the primates at the park are carriers of the Herpes B virus, and experts worry that an uptick in that population could mean an elevated risk for park-goers.

Still, the University of Florida says:

“…the risk of transmission of Herpes B from macaques to humans is uncertain,” and there has “never been a confirmed report of a human contracting Herpes B from a macaque in the wild.”

Though the university is playing it cool and an article in the February issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases considers transmission a low-incidence, high-consequence risk because the nature of rhesus macaques is not as afraid of humans as other animal species, there may be real cause for alarm.

As National Geographic points out:

Several aggressive monkey displays [at Silver Spring] have led to two partial park closures since 2016, including one last summer, which was implemented after a monkey charged a family along one of the park’s boardwalks.”

State officials have attempted to control the monkey population growth at the park in the past, with trappers given permission to capture monkeys in the ’80s, selling some to biomedical research facilities and sterilizing some of the females—a practice that proved controversial at the time and “has since halted,” according to the University of Florida.

But as wildlife ecologist and assistant professor of research at Texas A&M University-Kingsville Jane Anderson told National Geographic, sterilization is a practice that might be worth bringing back, helping to better control the population. Anderson says the current population could potentially be reduced to a “third of its current size” by sterilizing just half the females.

Most Twitter users had strong feelings about the situation:

Some wondered about key monkey votes:

Others felt the news was right on target for 2018:

And some saw this news as turnabout as fair play for creatures who are often used in lab testing:

Others saw it as we did:

This one just about sums it all up perfectly:

H/T: National Geographic, New York Post