Yellow fever outbreaks happen in cycles in Brazil. This time, however, the disease has spread in an unprecedented way. Its arrival to the Brazilian coast was never seen before and could generate irreparable losses. The 2017 outbreak could cause the extinction of a Brazilian monkey species.
It would be the first time a primate species in wiped out in nearly a century. But infections are not the only cause of death. In the affected regions, local residents are pre-emptively killing monkeys.
They assume – incorrectly – that it would help containing the disease. Monkeys, of course, do not transmit yellow fever. They are victims of the disease as much as men. Mosquitoes are the actual vectors.
The 2017 yellow fever epidemic is the worst Brazil has seen in decades. Almost 200 people have died since January. Over the same period, monkey deaths reached 4,240. In the state of Espírito Santo alone, there were 1,200 deaths.
A particular species in endangered right now: the brown howler (Alouatta guariba guariba). Before the outbreak, there were only 250 individuals of the species, native of the Atlantic Forest.
“It is quite possible that the virus reaches most of the Atlantic Forest. Yellow fever could kill up to 90 percent of some monkey species,” wrote Sérgio Lucena Mendes, a biologist and member of the Network of Preservation Experts.
Besides the brown howler, the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) could be the next Brazilian monkey species in jeopardy. This species is confined to its last refuge, the region of Casimiro de Abreu, in Rio de Janeiro. Rio’s state government has confirmed a human death by the disease.
But, contrary to popular belief, the monkeys play no part in spreading the disease. In fact, they help preventing it. When a monkey dies of yellow fever, it should serve as an alert to authorities of the presence of the virus.
Authorities, however, didn’t pay attention to the first monkey deaths in Minas Gerais. Only half of the state’s population received vaccines over the past ten years.
In dealing with the outbreak, we must not look past the environmental aspect of it. To control the spread of yellow fever, it is imperative to preserve the forests and the animals. Killing the monkeys will only worsen the situation. Once yellow fever hits urban areas, it becomes nearly uncontrollable.