Poachers, predators and deforestation are not the only threats that chimpanzees now face. New research finds that even a human “common cold” virus can give them a deadly blow.
The virus, known as rhinovirus C, was responsible for killing healthy chimps during an outbreak of respiratory disease in Uganda in 2013, said the study published online in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases on Wednesday.
“This was an explosive outbreak of severe coughing and sneezing,” said Tony Goldberg, Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US and a senior author of the study.
“It was completely unknown that rhinovirus C could infect anything other than humans,” Goldberg said while giving reference to a two-year-old chimp named Betty, who succumbed to the virus and whose body was quickly recovered and autopsied after her death.
Rhinovirus C is one of three rhinovirus species, each causing respiratory disease in humans. But rhinovirus C is notably more severe than its relatives, rhinoviruses A and B.
“It was surprising to find it in chimpanzees, and it was equally surprising that it could kill healthy chimpanzees outright,” Goldberg said.
The outbreak occurred in February of 2013 and affected most chimps in the community. During that time, five chimps out of 56 died, including Betty.
The findings are a cautionary tale about human interactions with wild apes, Goldberg said.
In Africa, people encounter chimpanzees and other apes when human settlements expand into ape habitats, through activities like tourism and research, and when apes leave the forests to raid crops.