New Test Detects Elephant Herpes Virus

A new test helps veterinarians at the Houston Zoo detect the elephant herpes virus in its early stages. The zoo has lost six elephants to the disease and is working with Baylor College of Medicine to detect and treat the virus at its onset. Laurie Johnson reports.
The elephant herpes virus is often fatal because up to now, veterinarians have not been able to detect symptoms until it's too late. But scientists at Baylor College of Medicine, working in conjunction with the Houston Zoo, have developed a blood test that identifies a particularly deadly strain of the virus. Dr. Paul Ling is an associate professor at the medical school and co-authored the study.

"It can detect very, very small amounts of DNA. It turns out that the elephant herpes virus is a DNA virus. So really what we're looking for are very, very tiny amounts of the genetic material from the elephant herpes virus and this test allows us to do that."

The elephant herpes virus primarily affects the endangered Asian elephant. Six elephants at the Houston Zoo have died of the virus. The most recent was the Zoo's two-year-old calf, Mac, who died in 2008.

"We're doing regular monitoring on the herd. There are two juvenile Asian elephants in their herd. One is Tucker, he's a four to five-year-old male. The other one is, of course, the new one that was just born, Baylor. And we are monitoring those elephants for the virus routinely."

Ling says they've been able to use the test for early detection, but it also helps them understand more about the disease such as the fact that one way elephants transmit the virus is through trunk secretions. Ling says the next goal is to sequence the virus' genome and develop a vaccine.

Laurie Johnson, KUHF News.
Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...