Puzzling Outbreak of Elephant Herpes Strikes St. Louis Zoo

February 21, 2009 10:01 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
At the St. Louis Zoo, two elephants have contracted a potentially fatal strain of herpes that has remained mysterious to researchers since its discovery in 1995.

Can Jade and Maliha Be Saved?

St. Louis Zoo officials say two elephants, half-sisters Jade and Maliha, have been diagnosed with endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), a potentially fatal strain that can easily go unnoticed. Maliha has not displayed any external symptoms, which has alarmed mammal curator Martha Fischer.

She told United Press International, “The fact that an animal can come back with a test result that this is present but show no signs at all—that just goes to show you how much we don’t know about the disease, how insidious it is.”

The virus was first identified in 1995 when a baby Asian elephant named Kumari died suddenly. According to the Smithsonian National Zoo, “pathologists Laura Richman and Richard Montali found evidence of a herpesvirus infection” that later was determined to cause fatal hemorrhaging in elephants.

Treatment with the anti-herpes drug famciclovir has saved the lives of four elephants diagnosed with EEHV, but eight others treated with the drug died. “We don’t yet know why the treatment sometimes fails. A big question that needs to be answered is why some elephants get the disease and others do not,” said the National Zoo. Researchers are still perplexed by how the elephants are getting the virus, and where it comes from, as well.

Other cases of the elephant virus have surfaced in recent months. At the Houston Zoo, a 2-year-old Asian elephant named Mac died in mid-November after briefly struggling with the strain, according to King5 news. The zoo’s spokesman Brian Hill told the network, “keepers perform regular inspections of all our elephants and are trained to look for indications such as loss of appetite, lethargy, and swelling in certain areas of the head.”

Background: The Uncertainty Surrounding EEHV

According to the Baylor College of Medicine, “EEHV is believed to be an ancient virus that has co-evolved with elephants over tens of millions of years, just as human herpesviruses have co-evolved with humans.” The virus is found in both African and Asian elephants, but is particularly deadly for the Asian elephant population. Baylor’s Q&A on the virus emphasizes that “[r]esearchers do not know where EEHV hides in its latent phase or how the virus is transmitted from one animal to another.”

Reference: Elephant Care International


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