Monkeys in Florida carrying deadly herpes virus could double by 2022, experts say

A growing wild monkey population in central Florida has experts on edge, as these primates are carriers of the dangerous Herpes B virus that can cause severe brain damage and even death in humans.

The rhesus macaques monkeys found in Silver Spring State Park, located in the central part of the Sunshine State, could likely nearly double by 2022, scientists recently wrote in the journal Wildlife Management. Currently, the population is about 300, National Geographic reported.

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The monkeys — which are native to south and southeast Asia — have made their home in the state park since the late 1930s, when six rhesus macaques monkeys were allegedly released by a boat operator who was hoping to use the monkeys to start an exotic attraction, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Up to 30 percent of the primates at the park are carriers of the Herpes B virus, National Geographic reported, citing the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's announcement earlier this year. While uncommon in humans, those infected with the virus can suffer “severe brain damage or death if the patient is not treated soon after exposure,” according to the CDC.

The infection can spread from monkey to human by the “transmission of bodily fluids, which is possible through bites and scratches or other contact with bodily fluids,” the university explains online.

There have been at least 50 documented incidents of people who have contracted the Herpes B virus after being bitten or scratched by an infected rhesus macaques monkey in a lab. Nearly half of those cases resulted in death, while others “suffered permanent neurological damage,” according to the university.

While “the risk of transmission of Herpes B from macaques to humans is uncertain,” and there has “never been a confirmed report of a human contracting Herpes B from a macaque in the wild” thus far, according to the University of Florida, experts warned in the study that the growing population could put park-goers at an elevated risk if the population remains uncontrolled.

In the past, state officials have attempted to control the community of monkeys, especially after the population reached roughly 400 in the 1980s. At the time, trappers were given permission to capture the monkeys. Many female rhesus macaques were sterilized, while others were sold to biomedical research facilities — a practice that “generated a great deal of public controversy and has since halted,” the university said.

Jane Anderson, a wildlife ecologist and assistant professor of research at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, told National Geographic the population could be better controlled — reduced to a “third of its current size” — if just half of the female rhesus macaques in the area were again sterilized. Others options include removing the monkeys entirely.

But some local residents are opposed to removing the primates.

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“These monkeys have been here 80 years, and they didn’t choose to come here, so I don't think it’s fair for us to get rid of them because we don't like them anymore,” Debbie Walters, a guide with Captain Tom’s Custom Charters, told National Geographic.

“A lot of other animals cause disease, and we don't kill them,” she added.