Rumors And Hysteria

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It’s hard to decide what’s worse about the media coverage surrounding recent neurological Herpes/EHV-1/Rhinopneumonitis cases the hysteria it caused or the misinformation it spread. Rumors were flying about cases being covered up, people were panicking, and some vets gave bad advice.

The biggest problem with media coverage is that reporters often don’t know what to ask. To say there are ”cases” of the virus or horses with ”signs of the virus” doesn’t mean they’re neurological cases. The neurological form of the EHV-1 infection is the most infectious and the most deadly. Other forms of the virus cause respiratory infections that aren’t much of a threat.

Even when it’s clear that the virus involved is the virulent neuropathogenic strain, people are confused about what to do, especially with vaccinations. In the early stages of the winter outbreak in Wellington, Fla., the state veterinarians and experts from the University of Florida did an exemplary job of getting the right information out. They held public-information meetings and press briefings to get everyone up to speed on the nature of the problem and what needed to be done. Dr. Maureen Long from the University of Florida emphasized in no uncertain terms that available vaccines don’t protect against the neuropathogenic varient of the EHV-1 virus in any way, shape or form.

But misinformation about the virus persists, especially in racing circles. My husband and I race Standardbreds. We’ve seen some good come from the heightened awareness about EHV-1 neurological disease, such as Maryland making it a reportable disease so that control measures can be instituted, and also some misguided ones.

Some tracks require that any horses racing must have been vaccinated for EHV-1 within the previous 90 days. What is the point of this when the vaccines offer no protection and frequent vaccination is suspected of helping to push the mutation of the virus into this highly infectious form with a greater risk of neurological disease' There’s no harm is stopping the movement of horses regardless of which strain of the virus it is, but it fuels people’s fears unnecessarily if an outbreak that’s only respiratory disease hits the news as a Herpes outbreak.

Fact: From 60 to 90% of the adult equine population carries the equine Herpes virus, which they can begin to shed (making them ”positive”) with any significant stress such as shipping, heavy exercise, or an unrelated infection.

Fact: The common strains of EHV-1 (Herpes, rhinopneumonitis) are the equine equivalent of the common cold and aren’t much threat.

I’m not downplaying the seriousness of this neurological disease. It is showing up more frequently, and it is a significant health threat. However, there is no evidence that horses that haven’t been in direct contact with other horses with this strain are at any more risk of developing it now than they were 20 years ago.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD