Cross-species transmission of simian retroviruses: how and why they could lead to the emergence of new diseases in the human population

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Abstract

The HIV-1 group M epidemic illustrates the extraordinary impact and consequences resulting from a single zoonotic transmission. Exposure to blood or other secretions of infected animals, through hunting and butchering of bushmeat, or through bites and scratches inflicted by pet nonhuman primates (NHPs), represent the most plausible source for human infection with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), simian T-cell lymphotropic virus (STLV) and simian foamy virus. The chance for cross-species transmissions could increase when frequency of exposure and retrovirus prevalence is high. According to the most recent data, human exposure to SIV or STLV appears heterogeneous across the African countries surveyed. Exposure is not sufficient to trigger disease: viral and host molecular characteristics and compatibility are fundamental factors to establish infection. A successful species jump is achieved when the pathogen becomes transmissible between individuals within the new host population. To spread efficiently, HIV likely required changes in human behavior. Given the increasing exposure to NHP pathogens through hunting and butchering, it is likely that SIV and other simian viruses are still transmitted to the human population. The behavioral and socio-economic context of the twenty-first century provides favorable conditions for the emergence and spread of new epidemics. Therefore, it is important to evaluate which retroviruses the human population is exposed to and to better understand how these viruses enter, infect, adapt and spread to its new host.

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