On January 28 and 29, more than 70 participants from 6 countries gathered in Houston for the 9th Annual International EEHV workshop sponsored by The International Elephant Foundation and the Houston Zoo. Research findings presented at the workshop confirmed that EEHV is present among the wild population of Asian and African elephants and that the virus did not ‘cross’ recently from African elephant hosts to Asian elephants.
Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) is the leading cause of death in Asian elephants under the age of 8 in the care of humans. Since 1978, 60 cases of EEHV in North America and Europe, as well as 20 EEHV deaths in Asian among wild and managed elephants, have been confirmed. This devastating disease is a significant threat to self-sustaining populations of managed and free ranging Asian elephants worldwide.
At the Houston workshop, veterinarians, virologists, epidemiologists, immunologists, elephant care specialists, and administrators presented 16 research papers reporting advances in EEHV research, epidemiology and clinical management.
Among the advancements reported at the two day conference, Dr. Paul Ling of Baylor College of Medicine’s (BCM) Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, and the lead researcher for the 3 year old Houston Zoo/BCM EEHV research collaboration, presented findings of field studies that detected EEHV presence among healthy wild Asian elephants in India.
Dr. Ling’s data and additional research presented at the conference by Dr. Simon Long at Johns Hopkins University demonstrated that EEHV is widespread in Asian range countries and that Asian elephants appear to be ancient natural hosts of EEHV.
Dr. Ramiro Isaza of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine reported preliminary findings of a multiyear molecular screening and epidemiological investigation that found no significant association between EEHV occurrence in Asian elephants and exposure to African elephants.
Both findings argue strongly against the previously suggested notion that EEHV is only a disease of elephants in the care of humans and that the virus crossed recently from African elephant hosts to Asian elephants.
Other advances reported at the 9th annual workshop included establishment of highly sensitive diagnostic tests permitting routine monitoring of domestic and wild elephant populations that allow earlier treatment of elephants demonstrating EEHV symptoms, and establishment of treatment protocols that combine antiviral drug therapy with intensive supportive care.
“In the past three years, since the creation of the Houston Zoo/Baylor College of Medicine research collaboration, we have made more progress in EEHV research than at any other time since the elephant herpes virus was identified 17 years ago,” said Houston Zoo Director Rick Barongi.
Going forward, goals for the workshop researchers include securing long-term funding for the Smithsonian National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory, greater collaboration and communication among researchers internationally, development of more sensitive testing to identify when baby elephants are most vulnerable to EEHV, and expanded treatment and supportive care options.