rhesus macaque monkey
Representational image of a monkey. Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Wildlife officials have called for the removal of the free-roaming rhesus macaque monkeys from Florida after a research found that almost 30 percent of them in the state might be excreting a strain of herpes — herpes B virus or macacine herpesvirus 1 (McHV-1) — that could be life-threatening for humans.

Scientists found that a large number of the rhesus macaques in Silver Springs State Park were not just carrying the virus — which is common in the species — but had the virus in their saliva and other bodily fluids.

The forebears of the macaques, which are native to Asia, were brought to Florida in the 1930s — at a time when the Tarzan craze was prevalent in the state — in a bid to boost tourism.

About 175 monkeys roam freely across the park in Ocala, however, they have also spread to other parts of the state including Sarasota, and Tallahassee city.

The research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases suggested that a huge number of these monkeys are excreting a strain of herpes called the herpes B virus, which can prove fatal for humans if they contract it.

Herpes B virus, also known as the monkey B virus, is commonly found among macaque monkeys, including rhesus macaques, pig-tailed macaques, and cynomolgus monkeys. The CDC, on its website, states that the macaque monkeys are typically thought to be the host of the herpes virus. They might or might not show visible symptoms. However, the infection in macaque monkeys can be transmitted during active viral shedding through bodily fluids.

The herpes B virus is a rare sight in humans, however, if any individual contracts the virus, it can lead to severe brain damage or even death.

Researchers from the CDC, in collaboration with the University of Florida and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, examined feces and saliva samples obtained from the monkeys in the park. The samples were collected between the years 2010 to 2012. They also collected DNA samples from free-ranging monkeys from 2015 to 2016.

The researchers found that about 30 percent of the animals under observation from 2010 to 2016 were infected with the virus.

This virus, according to the researchers, could come in human contact through bites or scratches.

“No human deaths have been reported from contracting McHV-1 from free-ranging macaques, suggesting the risk for transmission from these animals is low. However, immunologic surveillance, reporting, and diagnostic investigations in humans are lacking. Human visitors to the state park are most likely to be exposed through contact with saliva from macaque bites and scratches or from contact with virus shed through urine and feces,” the researchers wrote in their analysis.

Florida wildlife officials said they were taking the problem seriously.

"Without management action, the presence and continued expansion of non-native rhesus macaques in Florida can result in serious human health and safety risks including human injury and transmission of disease," Thomas Eason, assistant executive director, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said in a statement, Tampa Bay Times reported.

Although the herpes B virus infection in humans is very rare, if contracted, it could be fatal unless treated immediately. The virus has been fatal to 21 of the 50 humans known to have contracted it while working with the monkeys in laboratories, according to the CDC.
Those who contract the virus should immediately be given first aid. A handy option includes cleaning the exposed wound thoroughly with water or scrubbing it with a soap. After the first-aid stage, the patient should consult a doctor for further treatment options.