At iconic Asian temple, monkeys harbor viruses

Across parts of Asia, Hindu and Buddhist temples often double as sanctuaries for free-ranging monkeys. Such sites can also shelter monkey viruses, a new report indicates.

SIMIAN SANCTUARY. Almost every monkey at Kathmandu’s Swoyambhu Temple carries primate viruses. R. Kyes/Univ. Washington

Because local residents and tourists frequent these so-called monkey temples, there’s potential for cross-species transmission of pathogens, say researchers led by Lisa Jones-Engel of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Their latest study, reported in the June Emerging Infectious Diseases, focused on rhesus macaques at Swoyambhu Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photos of that shrine grace postcards and the covers of guidebooks.

The team tranquilized 39 animals—about one-tenth of the temple’s monkey population—and took blood samples from them. Lab results show that many of the animals had been exposed to four common monkey viruses: 97 percent of the monkeys showed evidence of exposure to simian foamy virus, 95 percent to rhesus cytomegalovirus, 90 percent to simian virus 40, and 64 percent to herpes B virus.

Herpes B can be deadly to people, although no person is known to have been infected at a monkey temple. Even after herpes B exposure, monkeys are rarely infectious.

To minimize infection risk, Jones-Engel says, temple visitors should avoid feeding the animals and prevent bites and scratches by covering their skin. Culling infected animals isn’t necessary, she argues.

All the macaques at Swoyambhu Temple tested negative for three other viruses, including simian immunodeficiency virus, the evolutionary precursor to the AIDS virus.

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