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£300,000 for new study into the origin of AIDS

Red colobus monkeys (Procolobus rufomitratus)

Red colobus monkeys (Procolobus rufomitratus) Dr Tony Goldberg, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Press release issued: 13 September 2011

£300,000 has been awarded to the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge, along with a further £1.5million to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for a joint research project to investigate why the HIV virus only emerged in the 1970s despite entering the human population many decades earlier.

The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK) and the National Institutes of Health (US), will consider both the social and environmental conditions that would allow a pathogen to persist in a region for a very long time at a low level.  The researchers will focus on a population of wild red colobus monkeys (Procolobus rufomitratus) in Kibale National Park, Uganda and the human communities that interact with them.

Dr Mhairi Gibson of the University of Bristol and Dr Simon Frost from the University of Cambridge will study the human dimensions of disease transmission from these monkeys, while Dr Tony Goldberg of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and colleagues will study the monkeys themselves to understand how retroviruses are maintained within primate populations.

One of the great enduring mysteries in human health concerns the origin of AIDS.  HIV-1, the retrovirus that causes pandemic AIDS, entered the human population from wild primates many decades ago, probably near the turn of the twentieth century.  Dr Gibson and Dr Frost will consider the social factors: how human knowledge, beliefs and behaviours might enable primate retroviruses to ‘jump’ into humans.

Their research will focus on human communities in western Uganda who live in close proximity to red colobus monkeys, a species which interacts regularly with local people in a variety of contexts.  Some of these interactions are antagonistic, leading to the killing of primates and/or human injury and increasing rates of disease transmission between the species.

The researchers will conduct a series of surveys to understand how people perceive and experience the risks of disease transmission from primates.  They will identify individuals who hold critical knowledge about human-primate contact and target these individuals in order to probe their attitudes and knowledge.  Interviews with these people will be complemented by ‘activity-space mapping’, which will reveal the physical locations of human-primate contact.  Participants in the study will also be instructed in the use of video cameras and asked to record events from their own lives, to share stories, and to voice opinions on topics related to primates or disease transmission.

Dr Gibson said: “Together with the research of our colleagues in the United States, this work will yield a holistic picture of the root biological and social factors that drive the transmission of primate retroviruses.  This effort will substantially improve our understanding of the biological and social conditions under which new and similar diseases might emerge, which will benefit public health on a global scale.”

The Bristol/Madison-Wisconsin study is one of three research projects aimed at controlling the transmission of zoonoses (infectious diseases spread from animals to humans) to be awarded a share of more than £3.5million via the Ecology of Infectious Diseases (EID) Initiative by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK, and National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US.

About 75 per cent of currently emerging diseases are zoonoses and these pose a serious threat to human health and global food security.  All three research projects will draw on expertise from both biological and social scientists in order to provide advice to help public health workers in the developing world combat the emergence and spread of disease.

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC, said: “Infectious diseases are a global problem that requires a coordinated international solution.  By bringing together the expertise of a diverse range of scientists in the UK and US, these projects will help farmers and officials in the developing world manage the threat of disease.

“Many important emerging diseases are transmitted to people from animals, so combating the spread of infectious diseases in animals is doubly useful: it improves animal health helping to ensure global food security and guards against human disease.”

Professor Paul Boyle, Chief Executive of the ESRC, said: “Addressing the social and economic implications of infectious diseases, alongside the biological implications, is essential to developing a comprehensive understanding of this key global challenge.  This trans-Atlantic initiative creates an opportunity for the best UK social scientists to collaborate with the best researchers from the US, and for them to inform the development of strategies to help health professionals and policy makers within and beyond the UK to combat existing and emerging diseases.”

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