Investigating Primate Malaria in the Amazon

A microscope slide shows the malarial parasite in a red blood cell red (see arrow) of a sampled primate.

When I first met Marina Bueno, I was instantly drawn to her excitement and passion for research in conservation medicine, a field that blends aspects of wildlife conservation, wildlife health, and human health. Marina is a veterinarian and doctoral scientist who works with the University of São Paulo’s Laboratory of Wildlife Comparative Pathology in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences. She also works with TRÍADE, a Brazilian organization for conservation medicine research, and Instituto Pri-Matas, a nonprofit organization conducting a project with golden-headed lion tamarins. Last summer, Marina spent extended time training in our Molecular Diagnostics Lab, learning how to improve DNA isolation techniques for some of her work. This is where we first discussed potential opportunities for collaboration on her projects investigating primate malaria in the Amazon.

Brazil’s Amazon region is seeing large-scale, human-induced (often referred to as anthropogenic) environmental changes that affect people and wildlife habitat. In a study conducted by Marina, José Catão-Dias, and their collaborators (Wildlife Conservation Society/Brazil and Malaria Research Center, Superintendency for Endemic Disease Control/SUCEN), primates were surveyed across two protected field sites in the Amazon that are currently under severe anthropogenic pressure due to large construction projects that include the building of roads and dams. The idea was to sample South American primates in these sites to better understand what diseases they have and how these diseases could impact primate conservation and human health in these areas.

Marina Bueno samples primates in the Amazon for potential diseases.

They found that approximately 20 percent of surveyed primates carried a malaria-causing parasite, Plasmodium brasilianum. While infection with primate malaria generally does not harm the primates, there has been speculation that some of the primate-specific malarial parasites may not be so primate-specific. Some scientists believe that mosquitoes feeding on primates infected with Plasmodium brasilianum could transmit the malarial parasite to humans when they bite a human host.

Marina’s research documents these malaria infections in primates, providing recommendations to closely monitor the human and primate populations for Plasmodium brasilianum infection in these areas of severe anthropogenic pressure, a situation that has been known to promote human malaria epidemics. The investigation also recommends that primates be tested for the presence of malaria infection before being relocated to other areas of Brazil for conservation or translocation projects so as not to inadvertently introduce malaria into areas where it has been eradicated.

Working collaboratively with scientists from around the world is a role that our Wildlife Disease Laboratories naturally falls into with its multidisciplinary group that includes veterinary pathologists, scientists, a molecular diagnostic laboratory, a histology laboratory, and an epidemiologist. Epidemiology expertise was provided for this particular collaborative project on primate malaria in the Amazon region. The study will be published soon in a peer-reviewed journal.

We are excited about our collaborations with our Brazilian counterparts in their quest to conserve one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the world and their search for harmony between human progress and wildlife conservation.

Carmel Witte is a senior research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Epidemi-what?

The above photos are printed with permission from Marina Bueno.

One Response to Investigating Primate Malaria in the Amazon

  1. Agreed!! This work is really impressive, and so important for both conservation and public health. Great work!! :o)