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Leslie Griffith Headshot

Circus Elephants with Tuberculosis are a Real Threat to People

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A little girl wiggles uncontrollably as she waits for the elephants to come out while sitting in the stands under the big tent. A bow in her hair, and her new glittery shoes on her feet. She's in her Sunday finest because the self proclaimed, "Greatest Show on Earth" is about to begin. She jumps from her seat as the endangered Asian elephants enter the closed arena. Her hands are now lifted high above her head in some Pentecostal fashion she believes will bring her closer to the mammoth ten thousand pound performers.

She holds cotton candy in one hand and reaches out with the other as the Asian elephants pass by hoping to get some of the moisture blown from their trunks on her body and in her hair. She loves the smell of them, the way they thud-thud- as they walk, and she's studying dinosaurs in school, and she believes they look prehistoric.

But this is where the scene screeches to an end. This is where the film rips, and the colors merge into Rorschach- black- burns on the screen. The circus boasts of "death defying acts," but she is possibly sitting closer to heartbreak and disease than she has the capacity to imagine.

"That little girl could be in very real danger of catching a communicable disease that could make her very ill or even kill her." World-renowned epidemiologist and head of the first HIV division for the Centers for Disease Control, Don Francis says. Never one to back away from a fight, Francis is the subject of a movie about his fight to make the world understand another communicable disease---AIDS. And the Band Played On is the movie, and he became one of my heroes when I viewed it almost twenty years ago. Francis is a man who has taken on giants with deep pockets at great risk to himself for the public good. He knows denial kills.

He fought to prove AIDS was ravenous. He wanted funding to try to stop it. We in the Bay Area were attending so many funerals a day the crematoriums could not get to all the bodies in time to display the Urns, and many funeral homes would not touch the bodies at all. Francis knows that in the face of a communicable disease, denial, politics and lack of research money can perpetuate a modern day plague.

After two years of researching the transference of m-tuberculosis from Asian elephants to humans, I took my documents to Don Francis--now in San Francisco running a bio lab called Global Solutions for infectious diseases. I knew if my evidence was solid, Francis would not lie, and he would not be afraid of repercussions if it meant protecting the public. The documents included e-mails affidavits, and depositions. All had to do with Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus and the fact that the majority of their elephants from 1993- 2007 had mycobacterium tuberculosis, the same kind humans contract. Many of the documents revealed that the elephants had been given one or more of the three treatment drugs and either could not tolerate them or had become drug resistant. These are the same drugs humans take for m-tuberculosis. I well remember the week of our meeting because that same week one man, on one passenger plane, was found to have m-tuberculosis. A few days later, congress held acrimonious hearings trying to figure out how one passenger could have boarded the plane exposing everyone inside.

When elephants enter an arena they often spew mucus from their spouts. If circus patrons are within shot of the effluence and the animal is sick, it could spread m-tuberculosis to the patron or worse. It could spread a drug resistant form of tuberculosis.

Last Sunday I opened up the Contra Costa Times newspaper and found this article on the front page.

The article used CDC figures which indicate that tuberculosis increased in four of the Bay Area's five largest counties and San Jose had the highest tuberculosis rate of any large American metro city." For the scientists among you, read "The Elephant in the Room."

After 15 years of denying it, the USDA finally admits Asian elephants can pass m-tuberculosis to humans and vice- versa. For more on that see this.

Now ask yourself if you know anyone with m-tuberculosis. Then ask them whether they have been to the circus lately.

If you are tempted to believe the circus' family-friendly all-American image is real, consider this: every e-mail explaining the herds had m-tuberculosis is sent from Ringling's veterinarian to a private investigator or former CIA director. I have the documents.

Money or public health? Ringling chose money every time while our little boys and girls sitting in their Sunday best were and may still be sitting ducks.

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