The monkey temples on the resort island of Bali are a perfect photo op for tourists feeding bananas to man's closest relative, but most visitors are likely unaware they're at risk of contracting a little-known retrovirus recently found to jump from primates to people in Asia.
Simian foamy virus, called SFV, has not been known to cause disease, but a recent study triggers questions about its potential to possibly sicken people in the future just as scientists believe the HIV virus evolved decades after it jumped species.
In a study conducted at a popular monkey temple in Bali, lead researcher Lisa Jones-Engel of the University of Washington's National Primate Research Center in Seattle sampled 82 people working in or near the Sangeh temple just north of Denpasar. One farmer, who was bitten and scratched by macaques, tested positive for SFV, becoming Asia's first known case.
"This is really a marker," Jones-Engel said in a telephone interview. "The virus itself doesn't give us complications right now, but it speaks to the context and the mechanisms for transmission."
She said SFV is commonly found in many primates -- 89.5 percent of the 38 macaques tested at the monkey temple were positive -- but has not been known to cause disease in animals. However, little research has been conducted on how widespread it is among humans or its long-term effects. So far, only about 40 people are known to carry the virus, including African bushmeat hunters and zoo and lab workers in North America.