Joy to the world: Asian elephant completes successful treatment for deadly disease

Asian Elephant
Asian Elephant (Houston Zoo)

HOUSTON – A 1-year-old Asian elephant calf at the Houston Zoo recently completed successful treatment for elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus.

Joy's treatment began April 4, when caregivers noticed her bloodwork showed the active virus, the zoo said.

"EEHV can cause severe disease in elephants primarily between one and eight years of age," the zoo said in a statement. "In its most severe form, the virus can cause a rapidly progressive hemorrhagic or bleeding disease that can be fatal usually within 1-5 days of signs of illness."

Joy and her mother, Shanti, rejoined the elephant herd after the treatment.

“While we are confident that the treatment protocol our incredible team enacted worked, Joy’s immune system will be vulnerable for the next couple of weeks. We’ll continue to monitor her and the rest of the herd closely,” Houston Zoo veterinarian Dr. Christine Molter said. “At this time, Joy is improving, and the virus level in her blood has decreased.”

Joy received around-the-clock care from April 4 through April 12. The treatment called for antiviral medications, blood and plasma transfusions and other supportive therapies.

EEHV is naturally carried by both Asian and African elephants. Herpesviruses are common in all mammal species, including humans. Herpesviruses are species-specific, and EEHV is not transmissible to humans or other animals. Like other herpesviruses, EEHV can become latent (hidden) in the host and may be shed periodically, which is normal.

When calves are exposed to a strain of EEHV for the first time, before their immune system is fully developed to handle the virus, they can become sick, whereas adult elephants that have been exposed to the virus before usually do not.

All elephants in the Houston Zoo’s herd are screened routinely for EEHV.

Currently, no other elephants have shown signs of illness, but the staff at the zoo will continue to be persistent and vigilant in EEHV monitoring efforts.