By Alan Mozes
WEDNESDAY, Dec. 27, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Five healthy chimpanzees in Uganda that died following a mysterious respiratory disease outbreak in 2013 were actually killed by a common human cold virus, scientists now say.
The deaths in the small chimpanzee community followed an "explosive outbreak of severe coughing and sneezing," according to study author Dr. Tony Goldberg, a professor with the University of Wisconsin's School of Veterinary Medicine.
In a university news release, Goldberg says it's now clear that the illness was brought about by exposure to the so-called "rhinovirus C," a common human virus.
"It was completely unknown that rhinovirus C could infect anything other than humans," Goldberg noted. "It was surprising to find it in chimpanzees, and it was equally surprising that it could kill healthy chimpanzees outright."
The study team pointed out that rhinovirus C was first detected in humans in 2006. It is considered to be a more severe cold virus than either rhinovirus A or B, particularly when it strikes children.
"In general, this virus seems to affect young children the most," said study co-author Dr. James Gern, of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
"Chimps seem to be genetically predisposed to have problems with this virus," Gern added. He noted that the virus found in a 2-year old chimp that died "was one that looked like it came from a human, and the level of virus in the lung was comparable to what we see in children."
The identification of the root cause of the chimps' deaths followed a DNA analysis of chimp fecal samples. The analysis led to the conclusion that there's actually a "species-wide susceptibility of chimps to this virus," Goldberg noted.
The findings were published recently in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.