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Frequently Asked Questions

There are many questions about this complex group of viruses. These questions and answers will help you better understand these viruses and the diseases they can cause.

What do we know about elephant herpesviruses?

To date, scientists have identified 14 genetically different elephant herpesviruses (EEHV), five of which are known to cause hemorrhagic disease. The viruses found in symptomatic elephants at different zoos and other institutions are genetically distinct, which means that they are not all the same strain spread by the transfers of elephants between and among zoos. The most common cause of acute EEHV cases and deaths in elephants is the EEHV 1a strain.

Herpesviruses are widespread in all vertebrate taxa, including humans. While herpesviruses are usually species specific, they can affect closely related species. (EEHV does not pose a health risk to humans, though humans are host to their own strains of herpesviruses). All herpesviruses do share common some features. Once inside a host, the virus can go into a latent (hidden) phase after causing only mild symptoms or no signs of disease at all. Scientists do not yet know where in the body EEHV resides during the latent phase.

For reasons unknown, an elephant herpesvirus can come out of latency and circulate throughout the bloodstream, causing disease. This is the only time when a herpesvirus can be readily detected in blood samples. Reliable tests are not yet available to detect a latent (hidden) infection. Most elephants are able to fight the virus and survive when it comes out of latency. Calves appear to be most susceptible to EEHV disease after they have been weaned, at a time when they are not protected by their mother’s antibodies.

What happens at the National Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) Laboratory at the National Zoo?

We conduct two main tests at the EEHV lab. The first, called PCR (polymerase chain reaction), looks for DNA from EEHV in blood from sick elephants or tissues from dead elephants and new births. We use this to diagnose an active case of EEHV. The second, called ELISA (enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay) looks for antibodies to EEHV in the serum of elephants and is used for research purposes—to track which elephants have been exposed to EEHV at some point in the past. We also consult with researchers around the world and help set up labs in other countries so that more research can be done, both on captive and wild elephants.

Our current projects include:

  1. Storage study. We are testing products from a California company that will allow researchers to store samples at room temperature, instead of having to freeze them at ultralow (-80 C) temperatures. This is important because many smaller zoos and many range countries do not have ultralow freezing capabilities. The ability to bank samples at room temperature will save money on infrastructure and allow many of these places to bank samples for the first time. It will also make the transport of the samples to our lab here much easier and cheaper—regular mail can be used and expensive dry ice won’t be necessary. This technology will help with EEHV research, but will also help with other elephant diseases and research on other species.
  2. Serology study. We are testing the serum of the captive North American Asian elephant population for antibodies to EEHV 1a, the most common cause of acute EEHV cases and deaths in elephants. We will combine the results of this study with an epidemiologic survey being done by Ramiro Isaza of the University of Florida to help understand the epidemiology and transmission of EEHV. We will be starting an African elephant serology study soon.
  3. Next generation serology tests. We are starting to develop serology tests for the other known types of EEHV.
  4. Endogenous hosts of EEHV. We are working with researchers in range countries to determine the natural hosts (Asian vs. African elephants) of the various types of EEHV.
  5. Subtyping of the EEHVs. The John Hopkins University lab does extensive subtyping of the viruses involved in cases of EEHV, to determine transmission and epidemiology of the viruses. So far, the viruses in most cases have not been identical and thus have not been passed from one facility to another.

What does "serological" testing mean?

Serological testing means the testing of serum, which is the liquid portion of a blood sample after it clots. In our case, it means testing of elephant serum for the presence of antibodies to EEHV 1a—a specific strain of EEHV.

How do you test for EEHV in an elephant?

As mentioned above, we do a test, called PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to look for DNA from EEHV in blood from sick elephants or tissues from dead elephants and new births. We are able to use this to diagnose an active case of EEHV or provide a postmortem cause of death.

In August 2010, researchers at Baylor Medical College developed a real-time PCR test in collaboration with Dr. Gary Hayward and the National Zoo to detect EEHV 1 and 3. This new assay makes it possible to diagnosis a case of EEHV faster and it is more sensitive, so that the virus can be detected even before symptoms begin to show We can also use it to track shedding of the virus, which will help answer questions about transmission and epidemiology of the disease. The National Zoo aims to have a real-time PCR test in place by early 2011.

Does the Smithsonian's National Zoo help establish other labs elsewhere in the world?

Yes, we have collaborated with researchers in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Thailand, Australia, India, Sri Lanka and South Africa on various projects and have shared our protocols, samples, reagents, and expertise and provided equipment and training for their labs.

Does EEHV affect elephants only in zoos?

We know that EEHV is not just a disease of the captive Asian elephant in western countries. According to an International Elephant Foundation progress report of spring 2009 by EEHV experts, more than a dozen cases of EEHV have been identified in elephant populations in India and Cambodia—eight wild Asian elephant calves died within the past year. Moreover, these deaths only represent the cases in which necropsies were conducted in sufficient time to detect it.

Current research indicates that the elephant-specific herpesvirus may have been in elephant populations for tens of millions of years, just as human herpesviruses have been in human populations. Since this is a naturally occurring disease, every elephant in the wild and in human care—probably carries one or more forms of elephant herpesvirus within them.

If elephants in both zoo and wild populations probably have one or more herpesvirus, why do some get ill and others don't?

Many animals and humans carry herpesviruses throughout their lives and never become ill. What researchers don’t know is what triggers the virus to become active and where exactly in the body the virus hides in its latent phase. We don't know why some animals become ill and others don't. It's important to understand that it's not about who has the virus, but who gets ill and when.

Can elephants transmit EEHV to other elephants?

There is not enough research to confirm how EEHV itself is transmitted, but most viruses are normally spread from one individual to another. Viral shedding occurs when it comes out of latency; however, there is no simple way to detect if the virus is active without a blood test. What we do know is that every elephant—in the wild and in human care—probably carries one or more forms of herpesvirus within them.

Can the elephant herpesvirus be transmitted through semen?

To date there has been no evidence found of shedding of virus into semen or transmission of EEHV through natural breeding or artificial insemination. The National Zoo currently follows the AZA Elephant TAG/SSP (Taxon Advisory Group and Species Survival Program) which recommends that institutions continue to exchange elephants and elephant semen for breeding and artificial insemination as specified in the breeding recommendations.

Is a facility contaminated once an outbreak of EEHV has occurred?

No. Like all mammals and humans, elephants carry a variety of different herpesviruses throughout their lives, and the majority of them may never cause illness, likely remaining latent. Some cause mild disease and some cause severe disease or death. Claims that certain zoos are contaminated once an animal becomes ill from EEHV are unfounded and based on a lack of understanding of how the viruses live within their hosts. Having a herpesvirus is the norm, not the exception. Like many viruses, herpesviruses cannot live very long outside the body, so a herpes outbreak does not “contaminate” a facility.

Is there a cure for EEHV?

There is no true cure for herpesviruses in animals or in humans. Based on current knowledge from our ongoing research and from elephant care institutions that have experienced EEHV infections, the treatment protocols continue to improve, and detection and treatment recommendations continue to evolve.

Current antiviral treatments suppress EEHV, and elephants can potentially recover if diagnosed and treated early. Of the elephants that have been treated, the success rate with anti-viral therapy against EEHV has been about 40 percent. To date, antiviral drugs have been used successfully in treating nine Asian elephants in North America, and seven of the most recent eight elephants to get sick from EEHV have recovered with treatment. Veterinarians and scientists continue to collaborate to better understand this disease and develop more effective treatment options.

Do researchers at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo hope to find a cure for EEHV?

Because herpesviruses go latent, we won't be able to find a "sure," but we hope to collaborate in refining effective treatments and help in the development of a vaccine to prevent EEHV. An important first step is to culture the virus.

Shouldn't zoos discontinue breeding elephants if calves are at risk for EEHV?

Cessation of captive breeding is not the solution to eliminate EEHV or to assure the survival of elephants. Infectious diseases, including EEHV, are only one of many threats to the survival of elephants. Efforts to save the species cannot be undermined due to fears from a single, potentially manageable problem. Instead, continued studies and research are the tools to better manage the disease, prevent it and control its spread to ensure the continued survival and conservation of elephants. When an outbreak of equine herpes occurred in 2005 in horses, the industry did not shut down. Instead it funded research that resulted in treatment, prevention and control of that disease. When black-footed ferrets were nearly driven to extinction in the 1980s in part from canine distemper, we did not stop breeding them. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, AZA institutions, private landowners, conservation organizations, and other groups collaborated on a rescue and recovery program. An effective vaccine was developed and the species bounced back from the brink of extinction.

But why take the risk of exposing another calf to EEHV?

While we have no guarantees as to the fate of a future elephant calf, we have operated for many years under the conservative assumption that all our elephants at the National Zoo could have one or more latent (hidden) herpesviruses. The risk is no higher or lower for an elephant born here, in the wild or at another zoo or sanctuary. We will continue to gather the evolving research and use the latest information to guide our decisions in caring for our herd. If we see signs of illness caused by elephant herpesviruses in one of our elephants, we would institute immediate treatment, relying on the strong body of knowledge acquired since we first discovered this disease in 1995.

Is further research being done to learn more about EEHV?

The National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory at the National Zoo is dedicated to investigating this set of diseases, to understanding how to protect elephants in zoos, and to solving the mystery of how EEHV is spread and developing an effective vaccine for the virus.

The collaborative work that zoos are doing to better understand EEHV may have important implications for wild elephants in the future. Wildlife biologists may one day need to draw upon the growing body of work and knowledge generated by zoos and the international elephant community to contribute to the long-term survival of the species in both zoo and wild populations.