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African Horse Sickness Disease
 By Winniefield Park   •   12th May 2016   •   1,071 views   •   0 comments


There are many horse diseases that those of us in North America are unfamiliar with. African Horse Sickness is one of those. Caused by a virus carried by tiny midges or mosquitoes, it may be called ‘horse sickness’, but it also affects donkeys, mules, and zebras. Horses are most susceptible to the disease. Dogs, lions, camels and a few other species may carry the virus, to be picked up when insects bite them, but they aren’t susceptible to the effects of the disease. Carnivores that have picked up the virus do so by eating meat from an infected horse or horse relative. There are actually nine different strains of the virus that causes AHS. Humans are not affected by the virus at all.

Outbreaks of AHS occur in equatorial countries, where rainy seasons alternate with hot dry weather, creating conditions favorable to biting insects. It’s thought that AHS was confined to central African countries, but the Near East and Arabia, Pakistan, India and even Southern Spain and Portugal have seen outbreaks.

There are four different courses the disease can take. In the pulmonary form, death can occur in about 24 hours because severe lung congestion causes respiratory failure. A horse has about 10% chance of surviving this type of viral infection. The cardiac form has a slightly better survival rate, with half to three quarters of infected horses surviving. Symptoms of the disease show seven to twelve days after infection and can include swelling of the head and neck areas, inflammation of the eye area, swelling of the hollow above the eyes, shortness of breath, stomach pain and high fever. Another form that affects donkeys and zebras, and vaccinated horses, and has an almost 100% survival rate may make the animal mildly sick with mild fever and respiratory congestion. The worst form however is a combination of the pulmonary and cardiac forms, that can only be diagnosed after death.

Considering the presence of carrier insects, weather patterns and symptoms the sick animals has is often enough to diagnose AHS, but the only way to be 100% sure what virus causes a horse to be sick however, is by taking a blood sample. Horses can only get the virus through the biting insects. It isn’t actually contagious, but multiple outbreaks occcur because midges can cover horses.

Little can be done to complete avoid outbreaks of AHS. Some years, if the weather is particularly dry and not good for the midges and mosquitoes, AHS is almost unheard of. But, when wet humid weather encourages the proliferation of these bugs, severe outbreaks can occur. Vaccinations are helpful, but not 100% effective, and it’s not practical to immunize all feral herd and domestic horses. In the past, infected horses were collected, quarantined, and slaughtered. One novel way of getting rid of tick infestations on feral horses has been to shoot them with a paintball gun filled with a ball filled with insect repellent. This way the horses do not have to be darted, which can be dangerous for them, and the public should a darted horse saunter sleepily onto a busy roadway or other hazard

Can horses that live in more northerly climates get AHS? It’s unlikely, although there are insects capable of carrying the virus in Europe and North America. The AHS virus is closely related to one that causes a disease called ‘bluetongue’ in deer, sheep and cattle, that has appeared in both the southern US and Europe. As our climate warms up, it’s felt that the insects that carry such diseases may move further north. North America remains AHS free, and it is on the list of reportable diseases in both the U.S. and Canada. If it does appear on our back step, disease control agencies in both countries have agressive policies in place to deal with it.
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