The ape thing about it

I once had lab meetings in a professor’s space that had at least a couple hundred vials of monkey poo lining the top cupboards.   I later ended up dating and moving in with someone whose current full-time job is using data from these bags of monkey poo to map the spread of diseases from monkeys to humans in Uganda. It’s funny how life brings you full circle.

My Chinese astrological sign is the monkey and we are all descended from the apes in some form to some degree, depending on how far back you want to go.   One thing that keeps evolution moving is disease and so it is important to study how diseases spread.   This is done under the guise of conservation, protection and human health, which also helps revolutionize the field of biology, anthropology, ecology, and so on.

On Monday night, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Colin Chapman, the professor with all those test tubes of monkey poo, give a lecture for the McGill School of Environment’s Mini-Enviro lecture series.   This series is a great and inexpensive way to give a different spin on topics that students like me take about 3 years of hard work to learn.   They cover important issues ranging from the world food crisis, to next week’s lecture on how having so many cars in the world today is a terrible thing.

The basis of Dr. Chapman’s lecture was to let us all know how monkeys spread diseases to the human population and vice-versa.   This type of sharing can be problematic, especially for countries with less pervasive health care, like Uganda, where Dr. Chapman does most of his work.

“This is a field I find fascinating, but also scary,” were Dr. Chapman’s opening lines, “there are social and ecological impacts, and I explore the ecology of infectious diseases.”

Dr. Colin Chapman helps us understand why monkeys don't make good pets

This is the type of thing not many of us think about, but it has far-reaching, relevant consequences for us, no matter where we live.   Looking at how quickly H1N1 has spread, one can only imagine how quickly new forms of HIV could also spread, not to be an alarmist, but that’s the world we live in today.

There is a surprising amount of diseases that humans and primates have in common, such as Ebola, HIV/AIDS, E.Coli, Giardia (beaver fever), Salmonella, Elephantiasis and more.   HIV was actually first spread because of a human-primate contact, originating in chimpanzees and mangabeys.

The connecting thread that weaves through all of this space is the idea that the world is being consumed at an unprecedented rate and it is not, currently, the norm to stand up and protect stands of forest that would be buffers against disease spread.   If the forest is being logged, burned and harvested, there is incrementally less space for groups of monkeys to rove, eat, sleep, procreate and poop.

“An area the size of Florida is cleared in tropical countries every year,” Dr. Chapman told a packed room, “this area supports 32 million primates.   By clearing this land, we are committing 32 million primates to death every year.”

Like the stories you hear about bears roaming urban regions, raiding garbage cans, so it is for the people in and around Kibale National park, Uganda where Dr. Chapman witnesses many of these realities.   It may be cute to see monkeys eating bananas in a tree, but not when you were saving those bananas to feed your own children and not if the increased contact may spread infectious diseases.   Conservation of primates and primate ecosystems are two of Dr. Chapman’s main focuses in his research as a McGill professor.

“Whole communities of gorillas can be wiped out (when people get too close).   There is a major decline in primate populations in all of central Africa,” Dr. Chapman noted, “there is one documentation of 93% of a population being wiped out within several months because of Ebola.”   The people who are most drastically infected with trans-species diseases are those who get clsoe to them, like illegal bushmeat hunters.

So what can we say about the shiny light at the end of the tunnel?   Dr. Chapman and his wife, Dr. Lauren Chapman have been working on applying their knowledge to make the world a better place.

In collaboration with various Ugandan authorities and residents, they have created the Kibale Health and Conservation Project, which employs a local nurse and gives residents something to do other than illegal forest and monkey slaughter.   Having a clinic close-by also avoids the problem of having to travel 10 km by bike with your wife doubling up ready to give birth.

Dr. Chapman and other experts in the field believe that emerging infectious diseases are on the rise.   This could be a sign that we’re getting better at picking up on new genetic varieties of diseases we already know about, or it could be a bad sign of a world in decline.   Staying positive is cool, though, and helps people hang on to hope, so please, stay cool, and visit the Kibale Health & Conservation Project to find out how you can make a difference.

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