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The AIDS front: worries, progress // African monkey triggered epidemic, researcher says

A gray monkey called the sooty mangabey almost certainly triggered anepidemic in West Africa of a disease closely related to AIDS, a researcher said Friday.

Dr. Vanessa M. Hirsch of Georgetown University said the monkey probably transmitted the HIV-2 virus to humans sometime within the past century through a bite.

While HIV-2 can kill, it is not as relentlessly fatal as HIV-1, the virus responsible for the AIDS epidemic elsewhere in Africa as well as Europe and the United States.

Many kinds of African monkeys harbor relatives of the human AIDS virus. And while the chances of transmission from animals to people are slim, such transmission likely has happened in the past and could occur again, Hirsch said.

"I would say it's very dangerous to own any kind of African primate," she added.

Hirsch presented her findings at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Many experts think that HIV-1, as well, spread from animals to people. According to one theory, it moved into a small, geographically isolated pocket of humans in Africa. The disease became epidemic only in recent years when those people moved to cities.

While no one has pinpointed the primate ancestor of HIV-1, Hirsch said that the discovery of one possible candidate will be published soon in the British journal Nature. She said that a team from the French Pasteur Institute has discovered a variety of HIV-1 in a pet chimpanzee.

"The evidence is highly suggestive of transmission from monkeys to man of HIV-2," said Dr. Louis N. Martin of a primate research center at Tulane University. "But where did HIV-1 come from? We don't know."

Hirsch said there are two reasons to think that HIV-2 came from sooty mangabeys. The monkey AIDS virus and HIV-2 are about 75 percent alike, she said, and the monkeys live in the same area where HIV-2 is rampant.

She said that the animals are quick to bite and that people in West Africa eat them and keep them as pets.

Hirsch added that the sooty mangabey virus was also probably the cause of an AIDS-like illness in macaque monkeys in the United States.

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