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March 24 is World Tuberculosis Day, a day set aside to raise awareness of one of the deadliest infectious diseases of people worldwide. Tuberculosis also is a major health threat to many animals, and is a growing problem in both African and Asian elephants, threatening their long-term health as individuals and as species.

Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria of the genus Mycobacterium. The bacteria are spread through the air, and can infect many different species of animals in addition to humans. African and Asian elephants can contract the disease from many other species, and the number of affected animals is growing.  Since Asian elephants are an endangered species and African elephants currently are listed as vulnerable, infectious diseases are disastrous for these already fragile populations.

Morris Animal Foundation is responding to the crisis by funding several studies focused on learning more about tuberculosis to help find strategies to save these keystone species.

One recent study tested the utility of a rapid screening test to diagnose tuberculosis in elephants. Culturing Mycobacterium from respiratory secretions is considered the gold standard for diagnosing tuberculosis in elephants, but the test takes several weeks to perform. Wildlife health officials needed a quick way to diagnose affected animals in the field.

A team at Colorado State University is looking at using molecular biology methods to see if the results correlate with culture results on the same sample. If the two tests show similar precision, using the new test would be a tremendous step forward in the fight against tuberculosis in elephants. Initial results are encouraging.

Elephants aren’t the only wildlife species affected by tuberculosis Morris Animal Foundation has helped. The foundation has funded several studies in the last five years studying the disease in African lions, mountain gorillas, badgers, African buffalo, new world monkeys, deer, and the banded mongoose. Learn more about our wildlife studies and join us in our work to improve the health and wellbeing of all animals.