Rabbit owners petition state animal health board to import vaccine against contagion sweeping U.S.

There’s another deadly virus outbreak in the U.S., but this one is killing thousands of wild rabbits.

It’s called Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus type 2 and it’s just as gruesome as it sounds. The virus, which has a 90 percent mortality rate in affected rabbits, causes blood clots and bleeding from the eyes, nose and mouth.

A vaccine is available, but not yet in Minnesota. Rabbit owners are petitioning the state to let them import the vaccine from other countries. The state says while it can allow imports on a case-by-case basis, it’s risky to start vaccinating for a disease that has no confirmed cases within its borders.

“Because RHDV is classified as a Foreign Animal Disease in the U.S., vaccine use is discouraged when the disease is not present in an area, just as we don’t vaccinate livestock for other Foreign Animal Diseases because we don’t have them in this country,” said Michael Crusan, spokesman for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. “The reasoning is because the vaccine itself can mask symptoms of the virus and may impede early diagnosis of the disease in rabbits if it would enter Minnesota. Also, there is no way to distinguish the difference serologically between a vaccinated rabbit and an infected one.”

Rabbit groups, such as Peacebunny Island in Savage, say waiting to act after a rabbit is diagnosed could be devastating to domestic rabbit populations.

“The rabbit world is really on high alert,” said Stephanie Smith. She and her son Caleb own several rare rabbits and have been dispersing them throughout the rabbit community as a precaution should one of her bunnies get sick. “It’s super deadly, super contagious. We have to get ahead of it if we are going to have any chance at all.”

RHDV2 was first spotted in New Mexico in March and has since spread to Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, California and Mexico. It poses a fatal threat to pets as well as wild animals, but does not affect humans or other animals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is not a coronavirus.

The virus is a variant of the original RHDV, which emerged in China in 1984 and spread through Asia, Europe and North and South America. When it escaped in Australia, scientists there were studying it for possible use in controlling rabbit populations. It has been killing rabbits in Australia ever since, although RHDV type 2 took over and became the dominant strain.

It is both highly infectious, and extraordinarily sturdy. According to the federal National Wildlife Health Center, it can survive several months in dry conditions, survive freezing weather and can be spread by rabbits, or anything that has come in contact with them, including insects.

The disease poses a serious danger to domestic rabbits because breeders attend shows and swap bunnies regularly across state lines. It may have gotten into the U.S. through a similar method.

Ralph Zimmerman, the state veterinarian in New Mexico, where the new outbreak started, said its origin is unknown.

“We hear rumors of underground rabbit transport, and there are folks that do import rabbits from Europe,” Zimmerman said. “So our concern is that somebody brought them in, they were carrying the virus during transport. If one of them died, they pitched it out and boom, we infect the wild rabbits and away we go.”

Not much can be done about wild populations of rabbits, Zimmerman said. Many die, and some survivors that are resistant to the virus repopulate the area. How much of the wild population dies will determine the effect of the disease on predators that rely on rabbits.

To be safe, rabbits, like people, need to be isolated, kept indoors and, just like humans, practice social distancing, otherwise known as biosecurity. For state guidelines, go online to www.bah.state.mn.us/biosecurity.

James Gorman of The New York Times News Service contributed to this report.


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