The National Zoo's EEHV laboratory is the sole facility in North America that tests for the disease. The virus infects only elephants and usually has a fatal outcome within a week of onset of symptoms.
Young Asian elephants are especially vulnerable to EEHV, as about half the deaths of young elephants in captivity are attributed to the disease. The only clear risk currently known for Asian elephants is exposure to infected African elephants, although infection is not limited to this factor.
Zoo pathologists identified EEHV in 1995 while investigating the sudden death of a 16-month-old Asian elephant born at the National Zoo.
Blood samples from symptomatic elephants are tested at the EEHV laboratory to determine whether they are suffering from the disease. The laboratory is currently developing a test intended to identify at risk elephants.
"The research and services provided by the National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory at the Smithsonian's National Zoo are a critical component to the collective efforts of the elephant community for the preservation of these endangered species," said Dr. Laura K. Richman, a former pathology resident and National Zoo research associate, who founded the EEHV laboratory.
"It is our hope that the lab will generate meaningful diagnostic and epidemiologic data that will help curtail illness and deaths attributable to the virus," Dr. Richman added.