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Volume 19, Number 4—April 2013

Monkey Bites among US Military Members, Afghanistan, 2011

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To the Editor: We take serious issue with the dispatch by Mease and Baker on monkey bites among US military members in Afghanistan during 2011 (1). In particular, we are troubled by the first paragraph. The dispatch opens by listing bites from rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) as one of the many risks faced by military personnel deployed to Afghanistan. Although technically a true statement, it is misleading in its perspective. Since 2001, ≈2,000 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan and another ≈18,000 have been wounded in action (2). The authors juxtapose this toll with minor injuries incurred by 10 soldiers who flouted explicit rules prohibiting contact with pet monkeys.

None of the bitten soldiers were reported to have sequelae. Furthermore, the first paragraph leaves the impression that a US Army soldier who died of rabies while serving in eastern Afghanistan may have contracted the disease from a macaque. This finding would be an extremely unlikely occurrence.

We have yet to see a single credible report of macaque-to-human transmission of rabies. In fact, we have yet to see a report of naturally acquired rabies infection in a macaque. Similarly, although antiviral prophylaxis is routinely prescribed to persons bitten by rhesus monkeys, there is not a single report of herpes B virus infection in a human outside the laboratory/zoo context, although thousands of persons are likely bitten by macaques in Asia every year (3,4).

In contrast, zoonotic transmission of simian foamy virus, a retrovirus ubiquitous in nonhuman primates, has been shown to occur from macaques to humans, probably through monkey bites, although this virus has not been shown to cause disease in humans (5). Although it is advisable to avoid contact with monkeys, risk for disease transmission should be placed in proper perspective. Exaggerating risks of bites has, in the past, led to irrational culling of entire populations of macaques (6).


Gregory A. Engel, Agustin Fuentes, Benjamin P.Y.-H. Lee, Michael A. Schillaci, and Lisa Jones-Engel
Author affiliations: Swedish Family Medicine, Seattle, Washington, USA (G.A. Engel); University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, USA (A. Fuentes); National Parks Board, Singapore (B.P.Y.-H. Lee); University of Toronto Scarborough, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (M.A. Schillaci); University of Washington, Seattle (G.A. Engel, L. Jones-Engel)



  1. Mease  LE, Baker  KA. Monkey bites among US military members, Afghanistan, 2011. Emerg Infect Dis. 2012;18:16479. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. US Department of Defense. Casualty status: Operation Iraqi Freedom; Operation New Dawn; Operation Enduring Freedom. November 6, 2012 [cited 2012 Nov 7].
  3. Engel  GA, Jones-Engel  L, Schillaci  MA, Suaryana  KG, Putra  A, Fuentes  A. Human exposure to herpesvirus B–seropositive macaques, Bali, Indonesia. Emerg Infect Dis. 2002;8:78995. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Fuentes  A, Gamerl  S. Disproportionate participation by age/sex classes in aggressive interactions between long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) and human tourists at Padangtegal Monkey Forest, Bali, Indonesia. Am J Primatol. 2005;66:197204. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Jones-Engel  L, Engel  GA, Schillaci  MA, Aida Rompis  A, Putra  A, Suaryana  KG, Primate-to-human retroviral transmission in Asia. Emerg Infect Dis. 2005;11:102835. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Monkeys with herpes B virus culled at a safari park. Commun Dis Rep CDR Wkly. 2000;10:99,102.PubMedGoogle Scholar


Cite This Article

DOI: 10.3201/eid1904.121505

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In Response: In response to the letter by Engel et al. (1), we concur that combat-related deaths and illness are a greater risk than monkey bites for deployed military personnel. Furthermore, we agree that risk for monkey bites should be considered in perspective with other risks faced by deployed personnel. We also believe that action taken to decrease macaque populations in response to risks mentioned would be irrational and inappropriate; in a country affected by war, wildlife conservation efforts are needed. We did not intend to imply that the rabies-associated death mentioned in our article was caused by contact with a macaque (2). As reported elsewhere, the patient likely contracted rabies from a dog bite (3).

Nonetheless, we believe that risk for monkey bites deserves the attention of deployed medical providers. Risks for bacterial infection and major local trauma are critical for any macaque bite. We acknowledge that risk for contracting viral disease (rabies or B virus infection) from macaques in the wild is probably low, but we believe that it merits consideration.

Social conditions in Afghanistan have prevented any substantial rabies prevention program. Consequently, prevalence of rabies among wild animals and pets is unknown and could be higher than in other countries. Absence of any documented human deaths from B virus in a country with a developing medical system and a high mortality rate does not confirm absence of risk. B virus has been shown to be fatal in other areas, particularly in countries with greater medical diagnostic capacity (4).

Engel et al. suggest that recorded monkey bites occurred because affected persons flouted rules prohibiting contact with local animals. Given the unpredictable nature of operations in Afghanistan, it is impossible to determine fault for the animal bites detailed. Furthermore, blaming bite victims may be counterproductive, exacerbating underreporting and discouraging deployed personnel from seeking needed care. We believe that the role of command support and responsibility cannot be overemphasized in preventing deployed personnel from interacting with local animals (5). We thank Engel et al. for providing additional perspective on the risk for monkey bites to personnel deployed in Afghanistan.

Luke E. Mease, Army Health Clinic, 5116 Kister Ave, Dugway UT 84022, USA:
Author affiliations: Army Health Clinic, Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, USA (L.E. Mease); General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, USA (K.A. Baker)


This study was conducted exclusively as part of our service as active duty US Army officers.


  1. Engel  GA, Fuentes  A, Lee  BPY-H, Schillaci  MA, Jones-Engel  L. Monkey bites among US military members, Afghanistan, 2011. Emerg Infect Dis. 2013;19:691.
  2. Mease  LE, Baker  KA. Monkey bites among US military members, Afghanistan, 2011. Emerg Infect Dis. 2012;18:16479. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Imported human rabies in a U.S. Army soldier—New York, 2011. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2012;61:3025 .PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Huff  JL, Barry  PA. B-virus (Cercopithecine herpesvirus 1) infection in humans and macaques: potential for zoonotic disease. Emerg Infect Dis. 2003;9:24650. DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Chretien  JP. Protecting service members in war–non-battle morbidity and command responsibility. N Engl J Med. 2012;366:6779.DOIPubMedGoogle Scholar

Table of Contents – Volume 19, Number 4—April 2013

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Page created: March 08, 2013
Page updated: March 08, 2013
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The conclusions, findings, and opinions expressed by authors contributing to this journal do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the authors' affiliated institutions. Use of trade names is for identification only and does not imply endorsement by any of the groups named above.