Officials: Horse deaths that may involve EEE grossly under-reported
Published 8:38 am Monday, August 18, 2003
By By Connie Nowlin Managing editor
Although West Nile virus is something of the new kid on the block as far as such things go, the danger of Eastern equine encephalitis is just as great and the mortality is higher both among humans and one of its hosts, horses.
In Escambia County, there is a moderate horse population, but deaths in that population are not always reported.
"I'm sure horse deaths are under reported," said Ricky Elliot, an environmentalist for the county health department.
"If a horse dies, often people bury it or drag it off into the woods. They need to have it tested instead," he said.
Dr. Tony Frazier, a veterinarian at the state vet's office, agreed.
"There is no regulatory action for not reporting an equine death," Frazier said. He also said there was no action against people whose animals had not had their shots.
But horse owners are encouraged to have a working relationship with a veterinarian for several reasons.
"Horses are in close contact with the people who care for them," Frazier said. He added that since the horses may contract several neurological diseases, including rabies, it makes sense to protect them and report any deaths so that the dead animal may be tested for cause of death.
"Your vet would collect samples for rabies as well as EEE and West Nile," he said. "Those are reported and we can know of human exposure as well. Our animals act as a sentinel."
Horses are considered a dead end host of EEE and West Nile virus, meaning that it is virtually impossible for them to transmit it directly to a human without a mosquito vector.
There have been 28 confirmed equine deaths in Alabama from EEE.
Frazier said horse owners need to make sure their animals are vaccinated early in the spring and get a booster in the late summer, the height of mosquito activity. He includes it in a series of steps that humans would use to keep themselves safe. Those steps are vaccination of the horses, control of the mosquitoes, protection of humans from bites by mosquitoes, and reporting sick or dead horses and birds.
Elliot said that Escambia County residents are doing a good job of reporting dead birds.
"We have had 80 calls from people who found dead birds, and 20 were tested," Elliot said. Tests may only be run on blue jays, crows and raptors, or birds of prey. Four of the birds tested were positive for West Nile virus. There have been three horses that tested positive for EEE, one for West Nile, and one confirmed human death from Eastern equine encephalitis.
Atmore veterinarian Dr. Hank Lee is also as concerned with EEE as he is with West Nile.
"I've talked to a lot of people who have a horse down and convulsing," he said. "But they don't use a regular veterinarian, the horse dies and they don't report it." He said as far as his own clients are concerned, the horses had all been vaccinated. He said one baby horse had died under suspicious circumstances that he believes were EEE, but the confirmation has not come back yet.
"Last year I was getting calls every day or so, a horse with West Nile. This year it is exactly the opposite, more with EEE."
Lee contends that it is far cheaper to vaccinate, with the cost of shots being about $7 for EEE and about $21 for West Nile. Each shot is given in a series of two, and that is the cost of the vaccine itself, not for a farm call to administer the shots. But treatments for EEE are usually in vain – there is a better than 90 percent mortality among horses with the disease, and the treatment for West Nile can easily run into the thousands of dollars.
"Vaccinating in cheap," he said. "But it's mighty expensive to treat."