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Monitoring chimps for heart disease takes patience, cooperation

When it comes to heart health, the best patients are those who participate in their own care – and not all patients are created equal.

Maxi, for example, is active in her heart health care. When a medical professional requests an electrocardiogram (EKG) heart reading to see how she’s faring, this 35-year-old is quick to oblige, eagerly placing two fingers in just the right spots on a portable device. Julius is another matter. He’s a friendly enough fellow, but when it’s time to get a read on his heart health, something always gets in the way.

Julius isn’t necessarily trying to be difficult, however. He’s a chimp, after all, and getting chimpanzees to willingly, and effectively, participate in screenings for cardiovascular disease – a leading cause of death for humans and chimpanzees alike, worldwide – can be a tall order. But for an elderly chimp like 55-year-old Julius, it’s essential.

That’s why caregivers at Chimp Haven, the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary and home to more than 300 residents, want to draw special attention during February’s national Heart Health Awareness campaign to the medical needs of these primates who share 99% of their DNA with humans. Nearly half of the chimps living on the sanctuary’s 200 forested acres in Louisiana are geriatric.

The KardiaMobile EKG devices used at Chimp Haven are the very same models commonly used by people in conjunction with their smart phones. When employed at Chimp Haven and other accredited chimpanzee sanctuaries and zoos, the process isn’t quite as simple.

“Chimps are like kids; it’s really hard for them to stay still,” said Rebekah Lewis, Chimp Haven Training Program supervisor. And staying still is exactly what’s required to get a solid EKG reading to evaluate heart function using the KardioMobile device. The device requires the patient to steady two fingers on a reading pad for at least 30 seconds.

“I’ve tried it myself, and even as an adult putting my fingers in there and holding perfectly still for 30 seconds or even a minute feels like forever,” Lewis said. “So that’s one of our obstacles.”

To illustrate her point, picture asking a 2-year-old child to place their two index fingers in an unfamiliar machine and not move. Then imagine you must make your cooperation requests through safety mesh and can only entice them with juice sips or the promise of belly tickles upon completion.

As the program expands, Chimp Haven staff expect they will be able to identify cardiac issues in the early stages and initiate treatment, such as changes to a chimp’s diet and exercise routine as well as the potential need for medication to alleviate the symptoms of cardiovascular disease. And when necessary, it can mean medications to reduce blood pressure, just like humans. Unlike most humans, however, that medication likely will be crushed up and put in a juice or peanut butter cup.

Chimp Haven is a private, nonprofit refuge on 200 acres of forested land in Northwest Louisiana, and home to more than 300 chimps retired from biomedical research. To learn more about Chimp Haven, visit www.chimphaven.org.

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