(CNN) – For the first time, cases of leprosy in wild chimpanzees have been identified, according to a new study, in findings that have stunned experts.
Cases of leprosy in chimpanzees have been detected in Guinea-Bissau and Ivory Coast, making it the first time cases of leprosy have been detected in a non-human species in Africa, researchers said in a study published Wednesday.
Leprosy is an infectious disease that can seriously damage the nerves, skin and respiratory system of humans. It can lead to the development of lesions and nodules, as well as loss of sensation in the extremities and blindness.
Scientists used camera traps to study chimpanzee behavior between 2015 and 2019. By looking at the images, the researchers found two males and two women with “severe leprosy-like lesions,” according to the study. Symptoms – similar to those experienced in humans – have developed over time.
“When I first saw pictures of a chimpanzee with nodules and lesions on his face, I immediately realized it was leprosy because it is very similar to leprosy in humans,” said Kimberly Hawkings, senior science lecturer. from Exeter in the UK and one of the study’s authors, told CNN on Thursday.
According to the study, it is not known exactly how the chimpanzees became infected, but it is believed to have occurred as a result of exposure to humans or “other unknown environmental sources.”
Hawkings noted that leprosy has been seen in wild animals before, such as red squirrels in the UK and armadillos in the Americas, but that it was shocking to see leprosy “suddenly appear in chimpanzees because they have been so well researched”.
He said more research will now be done on how wild chimpanzees are connected to the disease and what it means for species already endangered due to factors such as hunting and habitat loss.
Hawkins added that this discovery worries researchers and conservation efforts.
Treating leprosy in wild chimpanzees can be challenging.
“Treating leprosy in humans is relatively easy, especially if it’s diagnosed early enough,” Hawkings said.
“But for animals that are not inhabited by humans, like this population in particular, it is very difficult to give antibiotics. There are limitations to treating animals for leprosy and we have to consider the ethical implications of shooting darts on chimpanzees, so the question of treatment is complex.”
Hawkins said he will incorporate the discovery into his broader research, which focuses on interactions between humans and great apes, where humans have traditionally been considered the main host of leprosy, and now it’s suddenly appearing in wild chimpanzees.
Publish the research in the journal temper nature.