In 2003, a team of scientists made a groundbreaking discovery tracing the origin of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) back to African monkeys. Since then, Dominic Travis, D.V.M., has been at the forefront of a collaborative effort that seeks to fully understand how infectious diseases impact all primates — including humans.
“We try and find variables that connect habitat, wildlife, livestock and humans,” said Travis, wildlife veterinary medicine and epidemiology specialist at the U of M College of Veterinary Medicine.
While humans are understood to contract diseases from apes, Travis and other scientists are slowly finding evidence to support the notion that humans are spreading respiratory diseases to wild primates as well. When a human disease reaches a new primate population, oftentimes the entire population becomes sick.
It can be difficult to prove it is happening, but many scientists hypothesize humans are spreading disease to already endangered primate populations.
“The idea is that these big respiratory outbreaks in wild apes are happening due to interactions with humans,” Travis explained. “The apes’ habitat is shrinking, there are more people and there’s more interaction.”
One challenge researchers face in proving this interspecies disease spread is that direct contact with live apes can impact research methods or endanger them. For example, a tranquilizing dart can lead an ape to climb a tree and later fall from its branches. Travis and collaborators have spent years at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, which is home to a vast array of species. While there, they have tried to understand what diseases different apes carry without directly touching them.
A method Travis and colleagues have employed is observational health where researchers watch how the apes behave and assess their symptoms. One of Travis’ graduate students, Tiffany Wolf, D.V.M., recently developed a diagnostic test that can detect if an ape has tuberculosis from a feces sample, opening the door to improved and less-invasive monitoring.
Travis has also enhanced other conventional approaches to infectious disease in primates. Most researchers once believed apes carried the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), the non-human primate version of HIV, without contracting the disease themselves. However, while in Gombe, Travis found that SIV is actually killing apes as well.
Discoveries like this are what make Travis one of the world’s top experts in his field and a game changer for the health of all primates.