Defining the essential competencies required of veterinary graduates has reached a global level. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) is working to provide guidelines and tools to enable all countries to apply a standardized approach to improving the quality of veterinary education.
The effort began at an OIE conference in October 2009 that examined veterinary education and model standards. Meeting in Paris, the international group drafted 28 recommendations on the harmonization of basic competencies delivered by veterinary educational institutions worldwide.
Following the conference, the OIE established the ad hoc Group on Veterinary Education to define those “day-one” competencies. AVMA CEO Ron DeHaven chairs this group comprising nine other international veterinary authorities. The group is not trying to define accreditation standards, but instead, it is trying to address the particular needs of developing countries on subjects to be covered when educating veterinarians for work in the public and private sectors.
The draft minimum competencies the ad hoc group developed are defined as skills, knowledge, attitudes, or aptitudes, and have been divided into three levels. The general competencies cover basic and clinical veterinary sciences fundamental to the entirety of the curriculum, such as animal welfare and food hygiene and safety. Specific competencies directly relate to the skills needed to perform various tasks in accordance with international standards found in the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code.
At the 79th OIE General Session May 22–27 in Paris, and after review and amendments made on the floor, the World Assembly of Delegates approved a resolution that stated: “The OIE should in the future present a framework and recommendations to the World Assembly of Delegates on the day one minimum competencies required by veterinarians for countries to meet the OIE quality standards for veterinary services (both public and private components), taking into account existing input prepared by the ad hoc Group on Veterinary Education….”
At the same meeting, an amendment was brought to the floor and adopted that incorporates new language referring to the day-one competencies under the requirements on quality of veterinary services in the Terrestrial Animal Health Code.
Looking ahead, the ad hoc Group on Veterinary Education will further refine the day-one competencies and postgraduate training recommendations at its next meeting, Aug. 2–4 in Paris. These will likely be published as reference documents on the OIE website, as has been done for other topics mentioned in the international standards, sometime by next year's OIE General Session in May 2012.
TAMU Equine Initiative receives $2.5 million grant
Equine research and teaching at Texas A&M University got a boost this summer, thanks to a $2.5 million challenge grant. The university will be responsible for raising the additional $2.5 million.
The Burnett Foundation awarded the funding to the Texas A&M University Foundation for the university's Equine Initiative. This is a collaboration between the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Department of Animal Science at TAMU. The gift will help establish it as a premier equine program, according to a June 11 press release.
The Equine Initiative has plans to graduate industry leaders and generate research on veterinary medical care that will improve the equine industry and horse welfare. It is built on four major imperatives: curriculum enhancement, outreach and engagement expansion, facility construction, and partnership development.
The grant was given in honor of Dr. Glenn P. Blodgett, a leader in equine veterinary medicine and a 2011 Distinguished Alumnus of the veterinary college, establishing the Glenn Blodgett Equine Chair.
Colorado State searches for dean
Dr. Lance E. Perryman, dean of the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, will step down from his position next year.
He made the announcement in January, and the college launched a national search for his replacement in May. Dr. Perryman agreed to extend his appointment by a year through June 2012, with backing from CSU President Tony Frank, to provide leadership to the college as the university ends its capital campaign and as university budget issues stabilize.
During Dr. Perryman's tenure, the college has completed eight major capital construction projects that together exceed $100 million. The college is pursuing a master site plan to add 15 facilities in the next 10 years.
Dr. Perryman graduated from the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1970 and received a doctorate from Washington State in comparative pathology.
His first position was as a professor at WSU, and he later served as director of its Animal Health Research Center until 1994. That year he took a post as head of the Department of Microbiology, Pathology, and Parasitology at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. He joined CSU as dean in September 2001 and will finish his second five-year term this summer.
Dr. Perryman is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists and a former president of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
The search for a new dean is being chaired by Dr. Janice Nerger, dean of the College of Natural Sciences. Applications are due by Sept. 1.
Veterinary teaching hospital opens at NC State
After more than a decade of planning and development, North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine's Randall B. Terry, Jr. Companion Animal Veterinary Medical Center is up and running. The official dedication took place May 6; the Terry Center admitted its first patient later that month.
The $72 million complex, at 110,000 square feet, is one of the nation's largest veterinary hospitals and is more than twice the size of the veterinary college's original Small Animal Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
It has 30 examination rooms, 10 surgery suites, three dedicated emergency examination rooms, an expanded intensive care unit with patient visitation area, and high-flow air filtration in four isolation units and in emergency care.
The center is designed to meet the requirements for specialty practice and provide associated state-of-the-art technologies, according to an NC State press release, with medical enhancements and design features that include the following:
• A new linear accelerator.
• A 64-slice computed tomography scanner.
• A biplane fluoroscopy unit.
• Four ultrasound stations.
• Special copper-shielded rooms for leading-edge neurologic and ophthalmologic diagnostic testing.
• A canine bone marrow transplant unit with a reverse isolation air filtration system.
In addition, the Terry Center includes sustainable features such as water filtration units and sensors in each space that control energy use on the basis of occupancy.
The Terry Center is organized into nine individual specialty referral services, each with board-certified specialists and referral coordinators.
In all, the medical community numbers 123 faculty, 83 interns and residents, some 115 students, and 179 staff members.
The center is named after the late businessman and philanthropist Randall B. Terry Jr. from High Point, N.C. He was a former president of the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Foundation.
Terry died in May 2004 and in fall 2005 the R.B. Terry, Jr. Charitable Foundation provided the veterinary college with a $20 million pledge to initiate the philanthropist's vision. Appropriations from the 2006 North Carolina General Assembly and ongoing private donations matched by the charitable foundation also made the complex possible.
Research building under way at UC-Davis
The University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine broke ground April 29 for a four-story, 76,000-square-foot research building that will be dedicated to protecting and improving the health of animals, people, and the environment.
The $58.5 million facility is the capstone for the first phase of the veterinary school's $354 million building program. The new building, initially to be known as Veterinary Medicine Research Facility 3B, is being constructed in the campus's health sciences district, northeast of the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.
UC-Davis Chancellor Linda P. B. Kateh noted in a press release that the new facility will end a 40-year separation that required travel between the core campus and the school's teaching hospital and nearby laboratories.
The new building will bring together 50 faculty members in more than two dozen disciplines and nearly 40 student-faculty research teams, as well as laboratory and support staff. It will provide laboratories where researchers will explore a variety of animal health—related issues such as environmental pollution, food safety, public health, and infectious diseases. It also will house Veterinary Medicine Extension specialists, food safety monitoring and diagnostic systems, and biosecurity programs.
State and campus sources are providing $50.8 million to construct the building. Private donors are contributing an additional $12 million—$7.7 million for construction costs and $4.3 million for equipment and furnishings. Building is scheduled for completion December 2012.
This is the eighth and final building to be constructed as part of phase one of the veterinary school's $354 million building and facilities program, launched in May 2000. Seven of those buildings are at UC-Davis, and one is at the school's Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center in Tulare. The school's future building efforts will focus on updating and expanding facilities for the veterinary teaching hospital and constructing an additional building near the teaching hospital to further consolidate research programs.
Executive Board actions range from strategic plan to stem cells
Concerns about the economics of the veterinary profession are an underlying theme of the new AVMA Strategic Plan. It was one of the proposals that received approval during the June 5–7 meeting of the AVMA Executive Board.
The first strategic goal in the plan is to strengthen the economics of the profession. The other goals address veterinary education, animal welfare, scientific research, and membership participation.
“Economics was certainly the No. 1 concern of every one of our constituents who had something to say,” said Dr. Ted Cohn, chair of the Strategic Planning Task Force and District IX representative on the board. “If you really distilled all the economics within this plan, it probably underlies about two-thirds of the plan.”
The planning process began with input from the AVMA House of Delegates, volunteers on other AVMA entities, and the general membership about critical issues facing the veterinary profession. The planning task force also incorporated ideas from the recent reports of the AVMA 20/20 Vision Commission and the Task Force on AVMA Programs for Students and Recent Graduates.
In addition to economics, membership engagement is a focus of the new strategic plan. The plan includes the following vision statement: “The American Veterinary Medical Association engages and empowers its members to be the premier authorities and leaders in veterinary medicine.”
Strategic goals addressing economics and workforce were part of the previous strategic plan, in effect from early 2008 to early 2011. The new plan, effective through 2015, combines the economics and workforce goals into one goal to “strengthen the economics of the veterinary medical profession.”
Part of the new economics goal is for the AVMA to “strengthen veterinary practice profitability and financial well-being.”
The other part of the new economics goal is for the AVMA to “enhance (the) veterinary medical workforce” by balancing the supply of veterinarians with the needs of society.
Like the previous strategic plan, the new strategic plan has a goal addressing veterinary education.
The new goal statement is for the AVMA, in collaboration with the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges and other organizations, to promote “the development of a sustainable and affordable educational model that graduates competent veterinarians who meet the practice, scientific, global societal, and workforce needs of the 21 st century.”
Dr. Cohn said much of the education goal has underlying economic elements.
The new goal for animal welfare has three parts. Part of the goal is for the AVMA to continue advocating for animal welfare.
One new part of the welfare goal is to increase utilization of veterinary services. Dr. Cohn said this part of the goal is economic in basis to some degree, but it importantly reflects a need for preventive care to maintain animal wellness.
The other new part of the welfare goal is to advocate oversight of veterinary procedures. Dr. Cohn said this is a direct response to nonveterinarians providing animal health services such as equine dentistry.
The new strategic plan introduces a new goal to advance scientific research and discovery.
The goal statement is for the AVMA to support “the promotion and appropriate funding of veterinary scientific research and discovery to ensure the advancement of veterinary medical knowledge.”
Dr. Cohn said the Strategic Planning Task Force added the new research goal largely in light of “the serious lack of funding for veterinary research” and “to emphasize the need for veterinarians to enter into this critical aspect of the profession.”
The new strategic plan also introduces another new goal: to enhance participation and engagement by the AVMA membership.
Dr. Cohn said the goal to be more member-driven resulted from the report of the 20/20 Vision Commission as well as “the desires and concerns of many AVMA members.” The 20/20 commission developed a vision for the AVMA for the year 2020 (see AJVR, June 2011, page 721).
In the new strategic plan, the goal statement for membership is for the AVMA to enhance participation and engagement of members “through the creation of a culture of inclusion, transparency, and community.”
The list of AVMA core competencies differs little from the previous strategic plan to the new plan.
While the previous plan includes a goal for the AVMA to advocate for the profession in the governmental arena, the new plan incorporates governmental advocacy into the core competency of the AVMA serving as a voice for the profession.
The National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues will become part of the AVMA by Sept. 30, pending final approvals, and will dissolve as an independent organization.
The AVMA Executive Board approved purchasing NCVEI assets in response to the commission's funding difficulties, on a recommendation from the AVMA Office of the Executive Vice President.
According to background materials, “This recommendation to purchase the assets of NCVEI is premised on a strategy being developed by AVMA to assume a greater leadership role in addressing the economic critical issues of the profession.”
The AVMA is acquiring the NCVEI website, database, and brand. The commission offers a free program at www.ncvei.org that allows veterinary practices to compare their financial data with aggregate figures. The website also provides a variety of other business management tools. The AVMA will maintain the website and database following dissolution of the NCVEI.
More than 15,000 practices have used the NCVEI website, according to Dr. Karen E. Felsted, NCVEI chief executive officer. The AVMA, American Animal Hospital Association, and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges formed the NCVEI in 2000 with a mission to improve the economic base of the profession.
Dr. Felsted said the plan for the NCVEI to become part of the AVMA is a natural fit as the AVMA starts to focus more on economic issues.
The AVMA will purchase the commission's assets out of the $50,000 that the AVMA board previously approved in funding for the NCVEI in 2011. Dr. Felsted said the commission, as a 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization, cannot legally give its assets to the AVMA, a 501 (c)6 organization. The NCVEI will use the $50,000 for current obligations; any remaining money after the dissolution of the commission would go to a 501 (c)3 organization, probably the American Veterinary Medical Foundation.
The NCVEI board also must formally approve the purchase.
Committee to improve AVMA for young members
A new committee comprising mostly veterinarians within 15 years of graduation will try to improve AVMA services for colleagues early in their careers.
The Early Career Development Committee is also intended to regain interest among those who were involved with the AVMA as students, develop new resources, create networking opportunities, and increase discussion and feedback. The group will include five veterinarians within five years of graduation, two within 5 to 15 years of graduation, a school or college faculty adviser, and a representative from the American Society of Veterinary Medical Association Executives.
The AVMA Executive Board approved creating the committee and supplying about $24,000 for its first two meetings, which will occur in 2012. The Executive Board chair will appoint the committee members.
The AVMA also plans to hire a new assistant director in its Membership and Field Services Division to work with the new committee.
Study to consider internship experiences, expectations
A survey of veterinarians could help determine the need for an internship quality assurance program.
The AVMA Executive Board approved spending up to $13,360 on a survey intended to gauge internship quality and satisfaction. The survey is expected to begin later in 2011.
The AVMA Task Force on Veterinary Internships indicated in a recommendation to the board that the number of internship positions available through the American Association of Veterinary Clinicians' Veterinary Internship and Residency Matching Program increased from 175 in 1988 to 850 in 2009, while the number of applicants increased from 473 to 1,104. An unknown number of institutions offer internships outside the program.
The task force received anecdotal information indicating that internship experience varies considerably among programs and sometimes differs from intern expectations.
The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, and the American Animal Hospital Association have agreed to contribute toward the expected total cost of $20,000. The American Association of Equine Practitioners was also considering contributing to the survey but had not announced a decision by press time.
New specialists will have to maintain certification
New diplomates of all veterinary specialty organizations will have to take steps to maintain their certification, starting in 2016.
The AVMA Executive Board approved the new requirement and revision to the policy of the AVMA American Board of Veterinary Specialties.
The criteria for AVMA recognition of veterinary specialty organizations now include having a mandatory program for maintenance of certification, beginning no later than 2016. Specialty organizations will have to date new diplomates' certificates, determine actions for new diplomates to maintain certification, and implement an evaluation process to ensure compliance.
Each specialty organization will develop its own standards and protocol for maintenance of certification. An organization may use an examination for maintenance of certification, for example, or use a system by which diplomates earn points in a variety of ways—such as attending continuing education seminars or presentations, publishing articles, or serving on examination committees.
Specialty organizations will have to evaluate diplomates for maintenance of certification at least every 10 years. An honor system for diplomate compliance is acceptable if the specialty organization performs random audits of compliance.
A specialty organization that creates a new program for maintenance of certification cannot require existing diplomates to complete the program, but the ABVS policies encourage specialty organizations to initiate systems for voluntary replacement of undated certificates with dated certificates that require maintenance.
Stem cell policy updated
The Executive Board approved revisions to the AVMA policy on stem cells that reflect the changing face of stem cell research and stem cell-based therapies.
The policy on “Pluripotent stem cells” replaces the policy on “Stem cells.” A substantial change to the policy was the AVMA endorsing the use of pluripotent stem cells in preclinical models of animal and human diseases. Wording was also added that indicated that Association supports the ethical use of animal stem cells as well as regenerative therapies.
The Council on Research first developed the stem cell policy in 2005. Since that time, continued research has expanded the repertoire of stem cell types available, which, in turn, has led to an increase in the clinical use of autologous pluripotent adult stem cells to treat a number of degenerative diseases, primarily in dogs and horses, according to background materials.
AVMA releases draft revisions to model practice act
An AVMA task force has released a first draft of potential revisions to the AVMA Model Veterinary Practice Act, incorporating input from veterinarians and the general public.
The next step is for AVMA entities such as councils and committees to provide feedback.
The AVMA first adopted a model practice act in 1964 to serve as a set of guiding principles for state regulation of the practice of veterinary medicine. The most recent major revisions were in 2003.
Last year, the AVMA Executive Board established a task force to review the model practice act. Early this year, the task force invited AVMA members and nonmembers to submit comments on potential changes.
The task force received nearly 1,000 comments on the model practice act. Nonmembers submitted about 70 percent of the comments, and 10 percent of all the comments came from organizations rather than individuals.
The sections attracting the most comments were Section 2—Definitions, especially “complementary, alternative, and integrative therapies” and “practice of veterinary medicine”; Section 6—Exemptions; the preamble; and Section 3—Board of Veterinary Medicine.
The task force met in May to consider the comments and issue a first draft of potential revisions to the model practice act. The AVMA has posted the first draft at www.avma.org/issues/policy/mvpa.asp.
AVMA entities may provide feedback on the draft revisions to the model practice act until Sept. 9. The task force plans to submit a final draft of potential revisions to the board in November.
Foreign externships benefit French, American students
Jennifer Ailloud, a fourth-year veterinary student from the Veterinary School of Lyon and one of her classmates, Maxime Cambournac, spent two weeks on a neurology rotation and one week on an internal medicine rotation at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
The two students came to the U.S. Feb. 13-March 4 as part of an exchange program between American veterinary schools and colleges and the Veterinary School of Lyon in France in celebration of World Veterinary Year, which marks the 250th anniversary of the French school and the veterinary profession. The exchange program was established by the AVMA and is considered an official Vet2011 event.
Another Lyon student, Claire Meyer, was scheduled to attend the AVMA Annual Convention in St. Louis July 16–19 as part of the program. After the convention, she also planned to stop by the AVMA Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C., and AVMA headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill.
Then, this fall, two American students will visit the Lyon veterinary school. They are Claire McPhee, a fourth-year student at North Carolina State, and Randall Trzaska, a fourth-year student at St. George's University School of Veterinary Medicine, Grenada, West Indies.
Each of the five students will receive up to $3,000 from the American Veterinary Medical Foundation for travel expenses.
Missouri researchers say BPA exposure is underestimated
Exposure to the chemical bisphenol A through diet has been underestimated by previous laboratory tests, according to a study published June 6 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia compared BPA concentrations in mice given a steady diet supplemented with BPA throughout the day, compared with the more common laboratory method of single exposure, and found increased absorption and accumulation of BPA in the blood of the mice.
Study authors continuously exposed the mice to BPA through their feed, which is considered the primary route of exposure to this chemical in animals and humans. Following the exposure through the diet, a significantly greater amount of the active form of BPA—the greatest threat, as it is the form that can bind to sex steroid receptors and exert adverse effects— was absorbed and accumulated in the animals.
“People are primarily and unknowingly exposed to BPA through the diet because the various plastic and paper containers used to store our food are formulated with BPA,” explained Dr. Cheryl Rosenfeld, associate professor in biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the study's corresponding lead author.
“We know that the active form of BPA binds to our steroid receptors, meaning it can affect estrogen, thyroid, and testosterone function. It might also cause genetic mutations,” Dr. Rosenfeld said. “Thus, this chemical can hinder our ability to reproduce and possibly cause behavioral abnormalities that we are just beginning to understand.”
The study notes that more than 8 billion pounds of BPA are produced every year, and more than 90 percent of people in the United States have measurable amounts of BPA in their bodies.
“We need to study this further to determine where the ingested BPA becomes concentrated and subsequently released back into the bloodstream to be distributed throughout the body.”
“Comparison of serum bisphenol A concentrations in nice exposed to bisphenol A through the diet versus oral bolus exposure,” is available online by searching http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/home.action.
Marine mammals succumbing to dual parasite infections
Scientists with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have found a link between severe illness and co-infection with Sarcocystis neurona and Toxoplasma gondii in more than 150 marine mammals that died between 2004 and 2009 in the Pacific Northwest.
Such widespread polyparasitism among marine mammals indicates pervasive contamination of waterways by zoonotic agents, the scientists concluded. Moreover, the significant associations between co-infection and mortality rate and between co-infection and severity of protozoal encephalitis suggested the polyparasitism was an important factor contributing to disease severity in marine mammals.
The NIAID, part of the National Institutes of Health, collaborated with investigators in Washington state and Canada in the research, which was published online May 24 in the open-access journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.
Necropsies were performed on 151 marine mammals that were suspected to have parasitic encephalitis. The animals included several kinds of seals and sea lions, Northern sea otters, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, porpoises, and three species of whale. An additional 10 animals, all healthy adult California sea lions that were euthanized in the Columbia River to protect fish stocks, were included in the study as controls.
Hundreds of brain, heart, lymph node, and other tissue samples were examined. Parasites were found in 147 of the 161 animals studied—32 were infected with T gondii, 37 with S neurona, and 62 with both parasites. The remaining 16 animals were infected with various other parasites, including several that had not been detected before in any kind of animal. Notably, all 10 healthy animals were infected with either or both T gondii and S neurona.
“The presence of T gondii did not surprise us, but the abundance of S neurona infections was quite unexpected,” said lead researcher Michael Grigg, PhD, of the NIAID Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases.
Researchers theorize that S neurona has been introduced into the Pacific Northwest by opossums, which have been expanding their range northward from California and shed an infectious form of the parasite in their feces.
“The most remarkable finding of our study was the exacerbating role that S neurona appears to play in causing more severe disease symptoms in those animals that are also infected with T gondii” Dr. Grigg said.
Among animals for which parasitic infection was the probable cause of death, there was evidence of more severe brain tissue inflammation in the co-infected animals than in those infected by either S neurona or T gondii alone. The two parasites are closely related, and other studies had suggested that acquired immunity after infection of an animal with one of these parasites might protect it from severe illness following infection with the other. Dr. Grigg noted that was not the case in this study, however.
The study results also hinted that animals with lowered immunity, such as pregnant or nursing females or very young animals, were more likely to have worse signs when co-infected with T gondii and S neurona.
“Identifying the threads that connect these parasites from wild and domestic land animals to marine mammals helps us to see ways that those threads might be cut,” Dr. Grigg said. Managing feral cat and opossum populations, he added, is one way of preventing parasites from entering the marine food chain.
The study, “Polyparasitism is associated with increased disease severity in Toxoplasma gondii—infected marine sentinel species,” is available online at www.plosntds.org.
With few resources, researchers work to contain fatal elephant virus
This past May the Berlin Zoo announced that Ko Raya, a 2-year-old female Asian elephant, had died of an infection caused by a particularly virulent species of herpesvirus discovered only within the past two decades.
With few exceptions, herpesviruses don't cause clinically important disease. The virus that caused Ko Raya's death, however, was one of several novel elephant endotheliotropic herpesviruses now considered among the most serious challenges to the Asian elephant's survival in captivity and the wild. No vaccine is available for EEHV, nor are there any reliable treatment options for the disease, which accounts for a quarter of young, captive Asian elephant deaths.
Many of the 12 species of herpesviruses carried by elephants are benign. What sets the EEHVs apart is their lethality. Elephant endotheliotropic herpesviruses can cause a hemorrhagic illness so severe as to result in death within 24 hours of onset. The odds of surviving systemic EEHV viremia are approximately 20 percent, and just eight elephants have done so.
Dr. Ellen Wiedner was director of veterinary care for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in 2010 when an Asian calf at the Florida facility suddenly “wasn't acting right.” When a young elephant is lethargic or otherwise not behaving normally, one of the first concerns is EEHV infection, according to Dr. Wiedner, who recently joined the Los Angeles Zoo.
The calf eventually recovered after an aggressive treatment regimen that included famciclovir and intensive supportive care. In this and the seven other cases of EEHV survival, no one can say with certainty whether the antiviral therapy, intensive care management, or the animal's immune system was most responsible for their survival. It's one of several questions that have gone unanswered since 1995, when Kumari, a 16-month-old Asian calf at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., became the first known EEHV fatality.
Since Kumari's death, a network of veterinarians, virologists, and conservationists have shed light on EEHVs, of which seven species have been identified. Together they form a newly designated genus of mammalian herpesviruses known as probosciviruses. Five species are associated with disease and death, but only one— EEHV1—accounts for 90 percent of all the deaths and serious illnesses.
EEHV research received a major boost when the National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory was established in 2004 at the National Zoo. Today, the facility is a major resource for EEHV research and testing around the world. Herpesviruses are unlike some other viruses, explained laboratory manager Erin Latimer, in that they don't normally kill their hosts.
Fatal EEHV disease has been traced back to the early 1980s. At least 50 Asian elephant deaths in North America and Europe were a result of EEHV viremia. In addition, the herpesviruses are linked to 24 wild and captive elephant fatalities in India, Thailand, and Cambodia, although the actual number of elephants dying of the viral disease in these regions is thought to be much higher.
Three species of EEHVs have also been identified in lung and skin nodules from healthy African elephants. These findings suggest African elephants could be a natural host for some of these herpesviruses, which may explain their lethality in Asian elephants.
Young Asian elephants are particularly vulnerable to the viruses, with most infections occurring in elephants 1 to 4 years old. Gary Hayward, PhD, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, is considered a pioneer in the study of elephant endotheliotropic herpesviruses. He says up to a quarter of all captive Asian elephants 2 months of age and older die of EEHV disease. Over the past two years alone, six calves managed at institutions in England and Germany have died of herpesvirus infections, including Ko Raya.
Dr. Jeff Stanton has been studying elephant herpesviruses for the past two years at Baylor College of Medicine, near the Houston Zoo. In 2008 Mac, a 2-year-old Asian elephant, died of EEHV infection at the zoo. The two institutions partnered with the goal of developing a test for the disease and possibly even a vaccine.
A team of more than 20 people are part of Baylor's EEHV project, which has led to the creation of a quantitative real-time PCR assay capable of detecting the virus in blood. The test has aided the discovery of EEHV1 DNA in trunk washes from four captive herds of healthy Asian elephants, suggesting at least some species of the herpesviruses are endemic in these populations.
Baylor is also near to sequencing the EEHV1 genome. The process has been a challenge, explained Paul Ling, PhD, an associate professor in Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, who is overseeing the work, since the genetic makeup of the Asian elephant is unknown. Moreover, the genetic sequences of EEHVs are unidentified and are highly divergent from the sequences of most other herpesvirues, meaning no comparable templates are available to build on.
The chances of an EEHV vaccine being developed within the next 10 years are remote, however. Next to nothing is known about elephant immunology, and growing EEHVs in cell culture has proved especially difficult. Aside from the research challenges, the funding necessary to sustain such a long-term endeavor isn't there. Deborah Olson is executive director of the International Elephant Foundation, which supports EEHV research partly with donations from U.S. elephant-holding facilities. Olson says the government has so far shown little interest in supporting elephant herpesvirus research, and the small number of captive elephants means there's no profit for pharmaceutical companies in developing an EEHV vaccine.