updated 3/18/2004 7:02:57 PM ET 2004-03-19T00:02:57

African ape hunters are being infected by the same class of viruses that causes AIDS, scientists say, raising fears of a possible epidemic of a new disease in the future.

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The finding was the first study to confirm the transmission of a retrovirus from primates to humans in natural settings. The transmission has been seen previously among animal researchers and zoo workers.

“The hunting and butchering of primates plays a role in retroviral emergence,” said Dr. Nathan Wolfe, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

He said ape-hunting raises the risk “that ongoing cross-species transmission of retroviruses and other pathogens could spark future epidemics similar to HIV.”

Simian foamy virus jumps to humans
The study, which also involved researchers from Cameroon, was published in The Lancet medical journal on Friday. It said the hunters infected by simian foamy virus, SFV, had shown no symptoms of disease. More research is needed to discover if it is harmful to humans or can be passed between them.

Scientists say the AIDS epidemic that emerged in the 1980s was the result of cross-species transmissions of another monkey virus, simian immunodeficiency viruses, or SIV, to people several decades earlier. They based their theory on genetic analyses of the AIDS virus and similar viruses found in chimps.

Wolfe said researchers have already documented animal-to-human transmission of retroviruses like SFV and SIV in the laboratory, “but our study is the first to demonstrate that these retroviruses are actively crossing into people” in natural settings.

Scientists from Johns Hopkins, the Cameroon Ministry of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other institutions studied blood samples from 1,099 individuals from Cameroon who were taking part in an HIV prevention program.

They reported the presence of SFV antibodies in 1 percent of the people tested.

Exposure to non-human primate blood
People infected with simian foamy virus came from a number of isolated villages and were infected with viruses from at least three separate species of monkey and ape, including De Brazza’s guenons, mandrills and gorillas, the study said.

All reported having some exposure to non-human primate blood, which occurred primarily through hunting and butchering.

De Brazza’s guenons and mandrills are naturally infected with simian immunodeficiency viruses, the monkey version of HIV.

“The SFV infections in this study were from several geographically isolated locations,” said Dr. Donald S. Burke, co-author of the study and a professor of international health and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins.

Animal-to-human transmission 'widespread'
Contrary to conventional wisdom, that suggests that animal-to-human transmission is “widespread and arising from various locations where people are naturally exposed to mandrills, gorillas and other monkeys and apes,” Burke said.

In a commentary on the study published in the same issue of “The Lancet,” Martine Peeters of the Institute for Research Development in Montpellier, France, said there are almost no data on the occurrence of foamy viruses in human beings.

But she said there might be a long incubation period as in the case of HIV and the disease may mutate, so a strain of the disease may still show up in humans.

Peeters said more studies are needed to see if the virus can cause illness or be passed between people.

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