How human medicine saved Emma the chimp

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A CHIMP at Edinburgh Zoo has made medical history after her life was saved using complex medical treatment never before carried out on an animal.

Emma the chimpanzee was suffering from an infection that could have been fatal if left untreated.

Her vet set out on a complex course of treatment to save her life, which involved not just an operation but the use of human antibiotics and other pioneering techniques.

Her treatment took a year, and required hours of painstaking training to persuade her to accept her medication.

She was taught to display her chest to accept antibiotics that were pumped into an artificial opening called a stoma, and not to become alarmed when noisy medical equipment was switched on.

It is the first time this level of care has been carried out on a chimpanzee and the vet responsible plans to highlight it to colleagues across Europe.

It is hoped that the techniques may be used to improve the treatment of zoo animals elsewhere.

The 27-year-old chimp appears to be making a full recovery in the Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo, where she is the dominant female.

She is now outgoing and full of energy, but a year ago her condition was very different. The animal, who is a mother of one, grew despondent and lethargic.

Her air sac, at the top of her chest, had developed an infection that could have killed her if it spread.

First, an operation was carried out under anaesthetic to put the stoma in her chest, so the air sac could be drained and cleaned.

She had to be trained, with rewards of orange or cranberry juice, to allow swabs to be put into the opening.

To make matters worse, the infection turned out to be resistant to all veterinary antibiotics.

In a pioneering move, her vet Gidona Goodman decided to try a treatment usually given to children with cystic fibrosis.

However, the drugs had to be administered using a nebuliser and Emma again had to be trained, to allow a tube to be inserted into her air sac a few times a day. She underwent another breakthrough process when a bronchoscopy was also carried out. This involved inserting a camera into her lungs to make sure the infection had not spread.

A doctor even helped out with her treatment. State-of-the-art X-ray equipment was used by John Simpson, a consultant in respiratory medicine at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, to check her lungs.

Ms Goodman plans to pass on details of the treatment to colleagues at the next meeting of the European Association of Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians.

She said: "I am not aware of anyone else trying to nebulise a chimp having that multi-resistant bacteria. I'm hoping none of our other chimps will develop this problem, but it may be that if other people come up against it, this will provide them with other options for treatment."

Jo Richardson, head keeper of Budongo Trail, was responsible for training Emma in preparation for the treatment and said she was a "perfect patient."

"Now she's back to herself," she said. "She's our leading lady."