Rama the elephant is being treated for tuberculosis

June 1, 2013 - 10:11am
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Oregon Zoo animal care staff focuses on health regimen for elephant

Rama, a 30-year-old Asian elephant at the Oregon Zoo, has tested positive for tuberculosis, zoo officials learned yesterday. The zoo routinely tests all its elephants for TB by taking an annual trunk culture (collecting fluid from the animal's trunk and sending it to a certified laboratory for testing) as part of its comprehensive health program and in compliance with U.S. Department of Agriculture standards.

"Getting these kinds of results early, before any signs of illness, is beneficial to effective treatment," said Dr. Mitch Finnegan, the zoo's lead veterinarian. "That's why we have health protocols in place to monitor each animal's well-being. Our elephant-care team has a great rapport with Rama, which will be very helpful throughout the process of treatment. Rama's prognosis is very good, especially with early detection."

After receiving the report, Dr. Finnegan immediately contacted the public health authorities and veterinarians at the Oregon Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. The zoo is working with the agencies to develop the most effective course of treatment and proper safety protocols for staff and volunteers. According to health officials, zoo visitors are not at risk.

Behind-the-scenes tours in the elephant facilities have been suspended. As standard protocol, staff will wear face masks when working in elephant areas and Rama will be kept apart from the herd during his treatment.

While not common, TB has been reported in elephants as far back as 1875 and has a history of successful treatment at several North American elephant facilities. The zoo's veterinary staff will monitor Rama's progress through trunk cultures and blood tests during his prescribed treatment regimen. No other elephant in the herd has tested positive for TB. The other elephants will be tested again and will continue to be monitored for any physical or behavioral changes while Rama is being treated.

"TB is typically a very manageable disease," Finnegan said. "Rama has shown no signs of illness, and we're hopeful that with the proper treatment he never will."

Zoo personnel were also informed of the results, and those working in prolonged close proximity to Rama are being tested to ensure they do not have the disease. However, Rama's condition poses no significant risk to zoo visitors, according to Dr. Justin Denny, public health officer for Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties.

"Transmission of this disease requires prolonged periods of close contact," Dr. Denny said. "It's a good idea to test the keepers and staff who typically spend a lot of time close to Rama, but as far as the general public is concerned, there is nothing to worry about."