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World Leprosy Day Primate Problem

First documented cases of leprosy in wild primates – implications for local people

31 January 2021

Primate Problem

In a year when the links between human health and wildlife have been heavily scrutinised, biologists report evidence of a human disease, leprosy, affecting wild chimpanzees. Caused by infection with the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae or M. lepromatosis, leprosy was notoriously feared and stigmatised throughout history, although it's now rarer and treatable. Infections have been recorded in nine-banded armadillos and red squirrels in the wild, and several primate species in captivity, but these recent cases in West Africa are the first documented in wild primates. Direct monitoring and camera-traps tracked symptom development in multiple individuals (including a male named Woodstock, pictured), and sampling from faecal matter and post-mortem tissues revealed two independent strains of M. leprae. These strains are rare in humans, suggesting they may have come from another wild source – an important finding with implications for our understanding of leprosy, and the health of both chimpanzees and local people.

Today is World Leprosy Day

Written by Emmanuelle Briolat

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BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences until Jul 2023, it is now run independently by a dedicated team of scientists and writers. The website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biology, and its influence on medicine. The ever-growing archive of more than 4000 research images documents over a decade of progress. Explore the collection and see what you discover. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.

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