Faced with yet another global public health challenge, again involving an emerging infectious disease that transitions from wild animals to humans, it is crucial to see things clearly, give them the right names and avoid prejudice. Therefore, this column is an appeal for us to abandon the term “monkey pox” and adopt the expression “new smallpox”, at least while the scientific community does not formulate a more precise designation for the disease.
To stop mentioning non-human primates every time we refer to the new smallpox would, in the first place, have the effect of protecting the lives of animals that have absolutely nothing to do with the health problems of our species.
It turns out that, with the worrying spread of the disease across the country, the Brazilian Society of Primatology has received reports of aggression against monkeys and even deaths of animals by poisoning. One of these cases was reported this week, in the interior of São Paulo, by the newspaper Gazeta de Rio Preto – two capuchin monkeys showed signs of intoxication. It is no wonder that Renctas, an organization that fights the trafficking of wild animals, is advocating a change in terminology.
It is necessary to make it clear, in the first place, that the association between the disease and the animals is basically nothing more than a historical accident, a by-product of the way our species began to realize the existence of the virus that causes it. . The point is that the discovery of the cause of the disease happened in 1958, during an outbreak that affected monkeys bred in a laboratory in Denmark.
Mentally stress the “in the laboratory”: we do not know if these primates or their ancestors were already contaminated with the virus in their natural habitat. However, later outbreaks of the disease, both in Africa, its continent of origin, and elsewhere in the world, showed an association between the causative agent of the disease and wild African rodents, such as rat and squirrel species. Note well: rodents, not monkeys.
To date, there is no consensus on what the natural reservoir of the virus would be, that is, the species that it probably infects for tens of thousands of years or more, in a process of long-term joint evolution, and from which, from time to time, when, it jumps in to colonize the cells of other animals.
Checking this kind of information requires complex, long-term detective work. But the available evidence points to rodents, not primates, which may be occasional victims of the pathogen, just as we are.
In any case, this still unknown natural reservoir is definitely on the other side of the Atlantic, in African territory. Capuchin monkeys and the other dozen species of primates in Brazil have been separated from their second cousins in Africa for about 40 million years. That is, the chance that they naturally carry the new smallpox is about the same as that of a koala or a polar bear being reservoirs of the virus.
Another crucial fact to highlight is that, as it most likely happened in the case of Covid-19 and is happening now with the new smallpox, this type of problem will not disappear by magic. On the contrary: the intensification of deforestation, the climate crisis and animal trafficking on a global scale tends to make matters worse.
If we want to lower our chances of facing even more of this kind of problem in the future, we need to get to the root of the problem—and leave the monkeys alone for a change.
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