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Fight back Tuberculosis

A possible infection scenario: A human suffering from Tuberculosis excretes sputum with the pathogen. The elephant absorbs the TBC-positive sputum with its trunk. | © Christine Iben
A possible infection scenario: A human suffering from Tuberculosis excretes sputum with the pathogen. The elephant absorbs the TBC-positive sputum with its trunk. | © Christine Iben
Experts fear that Tuberculosis could spread to wild elephant populations or rhinos threatened with extinction. | © Wolf-Dieter Rausch
Experts fear that Tuberculosis could spread to wild elephant populations or rhinos threatened with extinction. | © Wolf-Dieter Rausch

Fight back Tuberculosis: New diagnostic measures save elephants and species threatened with extinction

Tuberculosis is, apart from Aids, the most deadly infectious disease worldwide for humans and at the same time a highly feared secondary disease of immunodeficiency.

However, Tuberculosis is also the most feared infectious disease in elephants. Wherever humans and pachyderms share the same habitat the fatal pathogen can be easily transmitted. Domesticated elephants in Asia are particularly affected. There is also the risk that Tuberculosis spreads to wild elephant populations or to rhinos threatened with extinction.

The problem: To this day there is no reliable "Gold standard method" for quick and sensitive diagnosis of Tuberulosis in elephants.

In 2017, 1.8 million people worldwide died of lung infection. The number of new infections is increasing steadily - especially also in Asia, mainly in India, Indonesia and Pakistan. Some 30,000 elephants live in Asia. Tuberculosis is THE disease of the poor people. According to the WHO, two out of five people suffering from Tuberculosis in these countries are neither diagnosed nor treated, owing to the poor medical care. The pathogen thus gets the opportunity to easily spread via tiny droplets in the air.

From human to human, but also from human to elephant. Elephants are particularly affected to suffer from Tuberculosis: Studies have shown that the so-called lifetime prevalence rate in Asian elephants is 16.4% and thus six times higher than in its African relative (as compared with a lifetime prevalence rate in humans of < 1%).

The common methods to determine Tuberculosis in pachyderms are often insufficient:

  • the clinical symptoms are mostly indifferent
  • lung X-ray is unsuitable due to the huge body dimensions
  • intracutaneous tests and cultures in trunks are not reliable and significant enough; they often give false positive or false negative results

Worldwide, there is a demand for a combined highly-sensitive diagnostic method and sample preparation. With the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Monitoring of Microbial Contaminants (CD-MOMICO) we have found a competent research partner with expertise in the development of methods for molecularbiological detection.

Our mission – the goal
Together with CD-MOMICO we aim at developing a highly-sensitive method for diagnosis and sample preparation for Mycobacterium tuberculosis in trunk cultures. Thus:

  • Tuberculosis can be detected at an early stage
  • infected animals can get the appropriate therapy quickly
  • the therapy's progress can be monitored
  • a spread of Tuberculosis to wild elephant populations and rhinos threatened with extinction can be prevented
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