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Malaria: The gorillas infected humans

The parasite is widespread among western gorillas and chimpanzees
The parasite is widespread among western gorillas and chimpanzees

Gorilla. This large African monkey, now threatened with extinction, is accused of having sent to us, long ago, the agent of malaria, a scourge responsible for each year of the death of a million people worldwide, mainly in Africa.

The culprit, if one may say, has been unmasked in the latest issue of Nature by a team of African, American, French and British researchers. According to Eric Delaporte, an epidemiologist at the Institute of Development Research (IRD) and coauthor of the study, contamination occurred between - 5000 and - 400,000 years ago through a mosquito primatophile that by stinging monkeys and humans, have transmitted the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest form, the most virulent and most common among the five identified in humans.

This is vital information. Indeed, until it was realized last year that the great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas) could also be carrying the agent of malaria, scientists believed that infection was confined exclusively to men. However, the discovery of this animal reservoir complicates the situation by making it more difficult to eradicate the parasite.

To learn more, researchers, headed by Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (USA), made analysis of nearly 3,000 fecal samples from wild monkeys, collected on 57 sites across central Africa.

The first lesson of this gigantic work, which was launched a decade ago to determine the origin of the AIDS virus is that neither bonobo nor eastern gorillas are infected by malaria. However, the parasite is widespread - up to 32% to 48% - in western gorillas (Cameroon, Gabon...) and chimpanzees.

Then, in a second time, scientists have found, using an original technique of DNA sequencing, unlike chimpanzees, "gorillas are infected by several strains of P. falciparum, one of which is the ancestor of the strain found in humans, ", explain the researchers. Therefore, these are the gorillas who have contaminated humans, not vice versa.

Several questions now arise. Gorillas are they still potential outbreaks of human infection? Also, how is it that P. falciparum is pathogenic to humans and not monkeys who are a priori healthy carriers? These responses may promote the development of a future vaccine or new treatments.


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