Liz, an African elephant housed at a sanctuary for the animals, was the source of tuberculosis infections among eight workers at the refuge, an author of a report on the 2009 outbreak said on Thursday.
None of the infected employees at the Hohenwald, Tennessee, sanctuary for old, often abused, elephants, became ill. The workers were given preventive therapy, and 54-year-old Liz is in quarantine and undergoing treatment.
A report by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blamed pressure-washing of elephant barns for the spread of the tuberculosis bacteria, which enters through the lungs, said Dr. William Shaffner, who helped write the report and is an expert on infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
"Elephants can excrete the bacteria through their trunks and even in their feces," which can become an aerosol mist when hit by pressurized water, said Shaffner, who is also president of the sanctuary that is 85 miles South of Nashville.
The mist exposed the workers inside the barn and drifted into an adjacent administrative building where three other employees inhaled it, the report concluded.
This should serve as a warning to handlers that even those with indirect contact with elephants can be infected, Shaffner said.
An estimated one in eight captive elephants are infected with tuberculosis, he said. There are as many as 600 captive elephants in the United States.
Workers at the sanctuary who deal directly with the elephants now wear more elaborate protective clothing and use lower-pressure hoses to clean the barns, and steps were taken to seal off vulnerable buildings.
The Tennessee sanctuary was created in 1995 and houses 14 African and Asian elephants where they can wander on 2,700 acres.
While elephants can spread the bacteria among themselves and to humans, Shaffner said the first elephant to get tuberculosis likely got it from an infected person.