OKC Zoo Contributes to Deadly Elephant Virus Research, Treatment

This week would have marked Asian elephant Malee’s eighth birthday. She was the first elephant calf born at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden after many years of work and the completion of a new elephant habitat. Instead, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the progress being made against the virus that claimed her life in 2015 when she was only four years old.

A lethal virus called EEHV (elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus) is causing the death of young elephants globally both in the wild and in human care. EEHV is carried naturally by African and Asian elephants. It can cause severe disease in elephants primarily between one and eight years of age. In its most severe form, the virus can cause a hemorrhagic or bleeding disease that can be fatal usually within days of signs of illness.

Vet Tech Liz McCrae conducts EEHV testing in the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hosptial

OKC Zoo Veterinary Technician Liz McCrae conducts EEHV testing at the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital.

Determined to find solutions to protecting elephants from the virus, researchers, veterinarians, virologists, scientists, elephant care specialists and conservationists came together for the bi-annual North American EEHV Workshop last month in Houston. Three representatives from the OKC Zoo were on-hand to share their knowledge and learn from other research. Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, OKC Zoo’s director of veterinary services, presented the Zoo’s program for EEHV monitoring and preparedness.

2019 EEHV Workshop Attendees - Credit Dale Martin/Houston Zoo

Attendees at the 2019 North American EEHV Conference in Houston. Credit: Dale Martin/Houston Zoo.

“After Malee’s untimely death, the Zoo invested in an in-house, cutting-edge EEHV monitoring program that analyzes blood and trunk secretions for any DNA evidence of the virus,” D’Agostino said. “Additionally, we conduct periodic EEHV preparedness drills and always have treatment materials like anti-viral medications pre-packaged and ready to go.”

Although 60 to 70 percent of EEHV cases are fatal, early detection is critical to survival. Malee’s sister, Achara, 4, tested positive for the virus and survived. As part of their treatment plan, veterinary staff used stem cells saved from Achara’s umbilical cord. Stem cells help boost the immune system, reduce inflammation and can repair damaged tissue.

Vet Tech Liz McCrae tests for EEHV

OKC Zoo Veterinary Technician Liz McCrae conducts EEHV testing at the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital.

“At the first EEHV Workshop I attended in 2010, we didn’t even know how many species and strains of the virus existed,” D’Agostino said. “Today, we have a much greater understanding of EEHV. Promising new research suggests that the virus attacks young elephants when they transition from relying on their mother’s antibodies (from nursing) to gearing up to create their own antibodies.”

The Zoo supports EEHV research by sending samples from its intergenerational Asian elephant herd to scientists studying the virus. It also serves as a backup, emergency testing lab for other Zoos in the region.

As for the future, Dr. D’Agostino is confident an EEHV vaccine is only a few years from reality and that the memory of Malee will drive the Zoo to remain at the forefront of virus treatment and early detection.

Dr. Jennifer D'Agostino

Dr. Jennifer D'Agostino, OKC Zoo director of veterinary services
Share |
Search the site