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Herpes virus death toll notably high, university experts say
A neurological strain of EHV-1 strikes northwest Ohio city; cause eludes investigators
Findlay, Ohio-An outbreak of equine herpesvirus type-1 (EHV-1) swept through the University of Findlay's (UF) English Riding Facility in mid-January, killing 12 horses, infecting scores more, and unsettling observers.
EHV-1 can strike anytime, anywhere, experts say. What left veterinarians,horse owners and state officials troubled by this case, however, was notonly its origin, but also the mortality rate.
The outbreak was the largest of its kind since an EHV-1 outbreak in Virginiain 1998.
"Things are getting a little better now, but it is a big deal,"says Dr. Greg Hass, veterinarian at UF. "It seems unusual that we'velost this many horses - the mortality rate."
The EHV-1 organism can spread quickly from horse to horse via aerosoldroplets in the air or contact with equipment used by infected horses.
By the time the virus was recognized in a complex where 144 horses reside,some horses were already down; others showed acute onset of ataxia and weakness.Within hours of discovery, they, too, were down. In all, eight horses wereeuthanized; four more died naturally.
Nearly 85 percent of the horses at the affected complex developed fever,depression and nasal discharge. Less than a week later, those horses beganexhibiting neurologic symptoms. On-site veterinarians were still treatingnearly 30 horses at presstime.
Investigators on the case have not yet determined a cause.
"We have to figure out how this happened," says Steve Reed,DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, professor and head of equine medicine and surgery at TheOhio State University, who visited the UF campus and is contributing tothe investigation.
"Was there any breach in the way you do things? If we all livedin a perfect world, every horse coming to a stable would go into a quarantinebarn for two weeks prior to moving to the stable. If you've got (many) studentsmoving horses in and out, to have a barn take 25, 50 horses into quarantineat one time isn't feasible."
To the University of Findlay's credit, Reed remarks that the facilitiesare "well-managed" with strict vaccination protocols.
Hass confirms the school has taken all necessary precautions, includingvaccinations. All horses on the farms in Findlay are required to have allimmunizations, including rhino, which is equine herpesvirus (rhinopneumonitis).
Despite rigorous precautions, apparently no locale is immune to the virus."It's possible for (such an) outbreak to occur anywhere," saysHass. "It's an unfortunate thing. Every population of horses in theUnited States is just as much at risk as this one."
Once the virus runs its course, he says the horses will go through anisolation period dating from the last day of the last case.
"Then we can feel free that we're at no greater risk than anyoneelse for having another outbreak," he says.
"Treatment has been based on early recognition," notes Hass."We've had experienced people continually triaging and identifyingnew cases and treatment as soon as we can."
The virus, which is not zoonotic, can cause respiratory or neurologicalproblems in horses, as well as abortions. It is typically spread throughthe horse's respiratory secretions, Hass says. In UF's case, the horsesprimarily exhibited neurologic symptoms, with some showing signs of respiratorydistress.
EHV-1, even in its neurologic form, is not uncommon, according to Reedof OSU, who compares the latest outbreak to the 1998 Virginia outbreak inwhich 46 horses were affected and two reportedly died.
"This is not a reportable disease it's a pretty ubiquitousvirus," says Reed. "The biggest difference in this case,"he adds, "is the number of deaths."
"That 10 horses had to be euthanized is absolutely traumatic. Everybody,students, farm help, veterinarians are stressed to the max," says Reedwho spent time at UF in January.
Four veterinarians from OSU as well as officials from the state veterinarian'soffice at the state Department of Agriculture visited the campus to collectblood samples and throat swabs in January. Even the president of the Universityof Findlay made an appearance early into the investigation to show his support.The University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center plans to conductfollow-up research to isolate the virus in this outbreak to determine ifit has a similar mutation to other EHV-1 neurologically-based outbreaks.
"The veterinarians and great amount of help that the Universityof Findlay is providing (shows) they're devoted to putting out the firesof the problem," says Reed.
The next step in the investigation, says Reed, involves a questionnairefor the involved horse owners. The epidemiological survey is designed toidentify whether a particular horse was the sentinel or point horse thatintroduced this virus and whether there was anything unusual in the management.
OSU and UF plan to also evaluate epidemiologic risk factors, whetherthe herpesvirus has particular mutations, and treatments used. (In additionto use of anti-inflammatories, veterinarians also treated horses with acyclovirduring the outbreak.)
Currently no vaccination claims protection against the neurologic formof EHV-1, Reed notes.
Hass says the university has and continues to make provisions for appropriatehygiene, husbandry and scheduled vaccinations at both horse complexes.
Hass recommends that people who work with infected horses wash theirhands and clothes; disinfect their boots; and use separate equipment foreach horse.
If possible, isolate horses for two weeks before addition of any newhorses.