CDC Reveals That Seven Oregon Zoo Employees Were Infected With Tuberculosis By Elephants

Elephants at the Portland, Oregon, zoo infected seven zoo employees with tuberculosis, a new report by the Center For Disease Control reveals. The employees were infected with a latent form of the TB while caring for three elephants at the zoo. The report was released by the request of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) after they raised concerns about elephants in captivity spreading TB to one another and even humans.

Reuters reports that seven zoo workers in Portland, Oregon, were infected with a latent form of tuberculosis by three elephants under their care in 2003. The employees did not exhibit any signs of the respiratory disease, so the workers went undiagnosed until recent testing. Though none of the seven zoo employees exhibited signs of tuberculosis, the TB outbreak proves that tuberculosis could be transmitted between elephants and humans while in close contact with one another.

The report was released after a judge ordered the CDC report as part of a records request by the animal rights organization PETA. The organization requested documents on tuberculosis in elephants as the animal rights group felt that elephants were at serious risk of spreading tuberculosis to other elephants or possibly even humans.

The CDC notes that the workers were not showing signs of the respiratory illness, and were not contagious during the time they remained undiagnosed. However, the department admits that the case is proof that more needs to be done to detect the illness as current methods are unreliable. The CDC also notes that the case is the result of a lack of information regarding the transmittal of TB between elephants and humans, and that even when they are taking cultures, some cases are missed and false positives are presented. Therefore, the CDC is calling for improved testing for workers at risk.

Jennifer Vines, deputy health officer for Multnomah County, worked with the CDC on releasing the report and says that though the case confirms transmission of TB between humans and elephants, it does not prove it to be “highly transmittable.” In fact, the CDC notes that human-to-elephant transmission of TB was first identified in 1996 and there have been a handful of cases in recent years.

As a result of the report, the Portland Zoo will be performing TB tests on its animals and zoo employees more frequently until June of 2016 and then will create a plan of action going forward. The outbreak was first identified back in 2013 when a 20-year-old bull named Rama tested positive for the respiratory illness. Shortly after Rama’s positive test, two other elephants at the zoo tested positive as well. However, the zoo notes that none of the other elephants in the enclosure became sick and only seven of the hundreds of people who were in close contact with the three ill elephants ended up testing positive for the illness.

According to NBC News, approximately five percent of all Asian elephants are infected with tuberculosis, making it a relatively common illness among the animals.

Did you know that elephants could transmit tuberculosis to humans?

[Image via AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki]