Horse tests positive for deadly virus

Published 10:27 am Saturday, August 29, 2009

FRANKLIN—A 7-year-old female miniature horse from Southampton County has tested positive for Eastern Equine Encephalitis, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

State officials said that the horse is from an area of the county near Franklin.

Along with a pony in Loudoun County, the Southampton case brings the statewide total of EEE cases to nine. Eight have been in horses and one in an emu. The state also suspects that a goat and an alpaca may have also contracted EEE. The mosquito-borne illness has also been found in Chesapeake and Suffolk.

“It’s what we call a neurological disorder,” said Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for VDACS. She said that symptoms of the disease in horses include staggering, wandering aimlessly in circles, depression, (evidenced by a lack of appetite), and sometimes fever and blindness.

“It generally kills most horses (that are infected),” Lidholm said. EEE kills up to 90 percent of infected horses.

While EEE is usually deadly to horses, there are effective vaccines against the disease and VDACS officials suggest owners vaccinate their horses every six to 12 months.

“There are some very good vaccines out there that have a proven track record,” Lidholm said. There are no vaccines for goats or emus and there is no cure once an animal has been infected with the virus.

“So far this year, all of the positive EEE horses had not been vaccinated or hadn’t been vaccinated recently for the disease,” said Dr. Richard Wilkes, the state veterinarian. Lidholm said that some owners have likely become complacent because of the lack of cases in recent years.

“The last few years we’ve had relatively few cases of EEE, but this year has been wet and that’s increased mosquito activity,” she said. Last year, the state recorded only one case of EEE.

Like most mosquito-borne illnesses, EEE can spread rapidly when heavy rains lead to large pools of standing water creating favorable breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Officials suggest everyone eliminate pools of standing water on their property.

In Virginia, EEE is most commonly found in the southeastern part of the state, because of the larger mosquito population in general, according to Lidholm.

“I am disappointed that horse owners in the high risk areas of the state are not vaccinating,” said Wilkes.

Ann Gayle of River Birch Farm Equestrian Center in Southampton County said that all of the horses at the center receive vaccinations for EEE and West Nile Virus, another mosquito-born illness, twice a year. She said that some owners probably don’t vaccinate in an attempt to save money.

“In the end, it’s worth it,” she said. “I think they’re just being cheap about it.”

Humans are not immune to EEE. Humans and certain birds can also be infected with EEE through the bite of an infected mosquito.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, EEE symptoms in humans can range from a mild flu-like illness to inflammation of the brain, coma and death. EEE is fatal to about 35 percent of people who contract the virus.

Both Lidholm and Gayle suggest that horse owners check with their veterinarians, but both said that veterinarians would likely suggest the vaccination.

“Especially this year, it makes sense to vaccinate,” Lidholm said.