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Primate virus found in zoo workers

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6:14pm, February 24, 2004
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From San Francisco, at the 11th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections

Viruses related to HIV can be found in the blood of some zoo staff and other people who work with primates, although the infections don't appear to be harmful.

"Simian retroviruses are actively crossing into human populations," says Walid M. Heneine of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

HIV, a retrovirus with several variants, evolved from simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV). Other retroviruses known to infect primates include simian type D retrovirus, simian T-cell lymphotropic virus, and simian foamy virus (SFV).

The researchers tested blood from 418 primate handlers at 15 zoos and animal-research centers for signs of simian retroviruses. They found evidence of SFV infection in 14 volunteers, SIV infection in two who had previously tested positive for that virus, and exposure to the type D virus in two cases. Genetic tests indicate that the viruses came from chimpanzees, baboons, and an African green monkey.

No symptom appears linked to the SFV infections in people, and tests of stored blood samples show that some apparently healthy volunteers have been infected for as long as 26 years. Of six primate handlers' spouses tested, none is infected. The findings nevertheless underscore the potential for dangerous viruses to spread from primates to people, Heneine and his colleagues say.

In a separate study designed to examine the prevalence of SIV in the wild, University of Alabama at Birmingham scientists following a troop of sooty mangabeys in Cameroon found that 64 percent of the monkeys were infected. The virus doesn't appear to harm the animals, but it is closely related to HIV-2, which is deadly in people.

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