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Packy the elephant still fighting TB at age 52

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Packy, the Oregon Zoo's oldest male Asian elephant, turned 52 on April 14 and celebrated with a 40 pound cake, the zoo announced. Packy is also battling latent tuberculosis which was discovered in July 2013. As a six ton senior citizen, described as "the elder statesman", he took his time enjoying the cake made with whole wheat, fruits and vegetables and five pounds of butter.

Packy and a son, Rama, were diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2013. Rama has responded well to treatment, the zoo reports. Packy's treatment has challenged the zoo's veterinarians. Between known side effects of the medications used and an apparent sensitivity to one of the drugs, his treatment has been a tribute to his toughness.

Zoo veterinarian Tim Storms is quoted by the zoo as stating "Just as with humans, the effects of these medications vary from patient to patient, and Packy seems to be more sensitive to one of the drugs. We're starting a new regimen this week, and we hope this is the one that works for him." Neither elephant is showing signs of the illness.

The zoo tests its elephants for tuberculosis yearly. Rama was diagnosed in late May, 2013 at the age of 30. The Oregon Zoo announced the illness at the time and assured the public that zoo visitors were not at risk. Zoo employees working with the elephants undertook precautions such as isolating the elephant and wearing face masks while working with him.

The treatment for tuberculosis in elephants lasts about 18 months. The quantity of drugs required, due to the size of the animals, is far greater than for humans. They are the same drugs used for treating human tuberculosis.

Mitch Finnegan, the zoo's lead veterinarian, described the condition of both elephants:

"What we've seen in both elephants is known as asymptomatic shedding," Finnegan said. "Neither Packy nor Rama has shown any signs of illness, and we hope that they never will. But we know that the TB is active within them, so our focus is on successfully continuing Rama's regimen and finding a treatment plan that works for Packy."

In a January 27story, KOIN reported that some zoo employees had tested positive for tuberculosis during the summer of 2013. They were undergoing treatment.

In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control received reports of a cluster of tuberculosis cases in humans in Tennessee. All were employees of an elephant refuge. Employees working in the elephant quarantine area more than four hours daily were found to be 20 times more likely to have a positive TB test. The elephant testing positive for TB was kept in that area, as were two other elephants in previous years who were positive for tuberculosis. Nine employees were found to have latent tuberculosis.

Packy appeared to enjoy his birthday cake, the zoo notes. The focus is on making his old age as comfortable as possible. The University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Web reports that he can expect another two to three decades of birthday celebrations.

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