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E. coli spreading between humans and chimpanzees in Ugandan wildlife park

Published: 13 Mar 2007

Antibiotic resistance in primates reveals transmission link

Antibiotic resistance in primates reveals transmission link

The first-ever discovery of E. coli transmission between chimpanzees and humans in a protected wildlife area has researchers worried about the potential impact on the health of both local populations – particularly since some strains of the bacteria are resistant to human antibiotics. Their findings appear in the April issue of the journal Biological Conservation.

Dr. Colin Chapman, who has worked in Uganda since 1989 and holds a Canada Research Chair in Primate Ecology and Conservation at McGill, is part of a team of scientists that included researchers from the University of Illinois and Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. They compared strains of E. coli among chimpanzees in Kibale National Park to strains found in humans working in the park.

More than 81 percent of the humans and 4.4 percent of the chimps studied were found to have at least one E. coli isolate that was clinically resistant to an antibiotic. Since antibiotics have never been used in local wildlife, that’s a clear indication that the bacteria was passed on from humans, the research suggests.

“What we don’t know is whether it’s being transmitted directly through contact between humans and primates or if both species are getting it from the same source,” said Dr. Chapman, adding the answer to that question will be the focus of the next stage of research.

Inter-species transmission is not new – Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV/AIDS) and Ebola are both believed to have originated with primates; however, this is the first time antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been observed in wild African chimpanzees.

“It adds another threat to a critically endangered species,” said Dr. Chapman. “It means we need to do more to protect chimpanzees and other primates.” It also means that though the risk of humans contracting diseases from wildlife populations remains “pretty low, it’s not as low as we thought,” he said.

On the Web: Biological Conservation

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