Before corona came along, tuberculosis (TB) was the world’s deadliest infectious disease in humans. The contagious virus infects the lungs and spreads to other parts of the body – like the brain and spine – causing severe organ damage. However, this doesn’t stop at humans. TB affects multiple species such as other primates, guinea pigs, cattle, rabbits, cats, and elephants.
Transmission of TB between elephants and humans is a growing issue, with both species being able to pass it between each other. The disease infects around 5 percent of captive elephants in North America and has been found in wild elephants in Sri Lanka, India, and most recently South Africa.
Detecting TB in elephants has been a difficult challenge as sputum (thick mucus from the lungs) collection and chest x-rays are tricky to carry out in these huge animals. Thankfully, the recent development of antibody tests has changed this and made detection more accessible. These work through an analysis of a simple blood sample, where antibodies can be detected against certain diseases giving insight into what the body has been fighting.
Researchers from Niigata University and the University of Miyazaki, among others, have been working on a cure for the disease in elephants for several years now. The infection of Fuku, an Asian Elephant from Fukuyama Zoo, in Hiroshima, sparked interest in this project and resulted in him being the first elephant in Japan to be cured of the disease.
The teams utilized the protein Ag85B as a way to detect and treat the virus in Fuku, creating a brand-new successful method against the disease. Although, as this is only one case, the team wants to carry out further studies on both elephants and humans with more universities in Southeast Asia to see if their method holds up.
Ensuring that TB infections in all species are detectable and curable is incredibly important for conservation and public health reasons as it saves lives from one of the biggest global killers.
Source study: Scientific Reports – Monitoring IgG against Mycobacterium tuberculosis proteins in an Asian elephant cured of tuberculosis that developed from long-term latency