Houston Zoo leading fight against elephant herpes

September 16, 2010 4:58:28 PM PDT
A new weapon in the fight to prevent a deadly disease in elephants is being developed right here in Houston. For the past year, the Houston Zoo has been working with researchers at Baylor College of Medicine to study the elephant herpes virus. Now researchers have come up with a test that's drawing interest from zoos around the world.

This test is really a breakthrough. In the last several years, six baby elephants born at the Houston Zoo have died from the herpes virus. Now researchers think they've found a better test.

At just four months old, little Baylor the elephant is already helping combat a deadly disease. Part of one of the most screened herds of elephants in North America, the clues he sheds about elephant herpes could save countless others.

"By the time they get sick, it's too late," said Dr. Lauren Howard, Houston Zoo Associate Veterinarian. "So that's why with our testing with Baylor, we're able to diagnose the problem before it's even clinically apparent."

It was following the death of another baby elephant named Mac who died in 2008 that the zoo paired up with Baylor College of Medicine. Their goal was to develop a way to detect the virus before elephants got sick.

The solution they found was not just to use blood samples, but fluid form the elephants' trunks and their tears to catch it quicker.

"The test that we've developed is so sensitive, and we're testing new secretions from the elephants that we can detect elephants before they ever become sick," said Dr. Jeff Stanton with Baylor College of Medicine.

Since the collaboration began, researchers say they have gained a whole new understanding of the virus, learning it's not as rare as once thought.

"What we're learning from all these tests is that having herpes virus in the system appears to be somewhat normal for a lot of elephants, if not all of them," said Dr. Howard.

And it's that understanding that has zoos across America excited. Many, we have learned, have already shipped samples to Baylor College of Medicine to test their animals. They're monitored just like little Baylor, who's apparently offering a lot of hope.

"It's really significant. It's going to be research that is going to help elephants all over the world," said Steve Feldman of the Houston Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "Zoos and other facilities around the world are looking forward to this research and testing, and it's going to make a difference for elephants everywhere."

The research is very important because currently there is no vaccine for this virus.

Baylor College of Medicine tells us their getting samples from elephants as far away as India.


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