Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease In America

Produced June 17, 2000; updated May 10, 2001 and October 2001

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RHD - Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease has come to the USA. Where did it come from? Can the outbreak be contained? What is the impact on various aspects of rabbit endeavor?

Name change - Why has USDA/APHIS gone with the Rabbit Calicivirus Disease designation?

The disease is properly called Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (or Viral Haemorrhagic Disease of Rabbits). In a telephone conversation with the Emergency Program officials in Iowa, Monday April 10th 2000, the officer in charge stated that the "higher-ups" had decided on using the RCD name. Where have we heard that incorrect term before? In Australia, where this euphemism has been employed to soften the public perception of RHD, by changing it to more pleasant-sounding name, the name of a less severe disease. Rabbit Calicivirus, Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease and European Brown Hare Syndrome are all similar viruses, but only one, RHD is pathogenic.

An Australian, Dr. Keith Murray, was brought to Iowa in 1998. Dr. Murray, who was Deputy Chief with CSIRO Animal Health in Australia, took on the position of Director of the National Animal Disease Centre (NADC) in Ames, Iowa. The NADC carries out research in the detection, characterization and prevention of animal diseases of importance to US livestock industries. But what is Australia's expertise in RHD? Certainly not in control of the disease. After the disease, being studied as a possible rabbit population control, escaped from the research area through a fence, the virus in "RCD baits" has been used extensively across Australia (and New Zealand) as a rabbit population control. How did someone involved in the deliberate spread of an internationally controlled disease, get a position in disease CONTROL?

Australia's expertise in this disease lies in the realm of spin-doctoring, of shaping public opinion to accept this disease as more or less benign. This spin-doctoring has even extended into school texts, in which students are told that "rabbits die of asphyxiation within a couple of days". (Footnotes for these quotes can be found in my 1997 article, which you all should read, a report on Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease, Pan-Am Newsletter, Vol.2-2 Dec 1997. This report replaces the tired old VHD Report in the J. Appl. Rabbit Res., which you see plastered all over the internet, as well as the misinformation put out in the AB-WRSA newsletter in 1997.

So, perhaps it was this Australian expert's advice to use the more pleasant name, RCD. In Science magazine (Volume 272, 12th April 1996) officials from Australian Animal Health Laboratories were quoted as "pleading guilty to a bit of spin control: They acknowledge that attempting to use the term Rabbit Calicivirus Disease instead of RHD, to make the virus seem more innocuous, was an ill-conceived public relations ploy". For more on the difference in attitude regarding VHD between America and Australia, see benefits of VHD.

The OIE (International Office of Epizootics in France) named the disease Viral Hemorrhagic Disease of Rabbits in 1989 [Scientific and Technical Review , OIE, Volume 10, No 2 - Viral Hemorrhagic Disease of Rabbits and the European Brown Hare Syndrome]. The International working committee on Calicivirus's recommendation to the ICTV concerning caliciviruses gives this taxonomic structure: Family: Caliciviridae, Genus: Lagovirus, Type species: Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus. These are the proper names, without the spin-doctoring. Thanks to Marguerite Wegner in Australian for the correct information (see Links page).

How can a country again become designated as disease free? According to OIE regulations, Article,

A country may be considered free from VHD when it has been shown that the disease has not been present for at least one year, no vaccination has been carried out in the previous 12 months, and virological or serological surveys in both domestic and wild rabbits have confirmed the absence of the disease. This period may be reduced to six months after the last case has been eliminated and disinfection procedures completed in countries adopting a stamping-out policy, and where the serological survey confirmed that the disease had not occurred in the wild rabbits.

How can a farm be deemed to be disease free?

An establishment may be considered to be free from VHD when it has been shown, by serological testing, that the disease has not been present for at least one year and no vaccination has been carried out in the previous 12 months. Such establishments should be regularly inspected by the Veterinary Authority.
A previously infected establishment may be considered free when six months have elapsed after the last case has been eliminated, and after:
  1. a stamping-out policy has been adopted and carcasses have been disposed of by burning;
  2. the rabbitry has been thoroughly disinfected and kept empty for at least six weeks;
  3. the rabbitry is properly fenced to prevent the straying of wild lagomorphs into the rabbitry.

What should be done at this time?

The outbreaks in Iowa (year 2000) and Utah (year 2001) were not a case of the disease slowly moving across a border. For the disease to show up there, it had to arrive on some object, either some object of trade, or from personal travel, which puts every rabbit in USA at risk. It just doesn't pop up in the middle of nowhere, except for the original outbreak in China, the great generator of new viruses.

There will likely be more outbreaks per year as time goes by, we are not about to cease all trade and travel with other (infected) countries just because of a rabbit disease problem. So, we'll just have to deal with both the disease AND the government's "Stamping Out" program.

If people are serious about contolling this disease, several things would have to be done, at each outbreak:

About biohazards

What is the biggest biohazard to your rabbits? YOU ARE! People are the big hazard to rabbits regarding disease transmission, in time of an emerging disease. People moving things around is the big hazard. During a time of an outbreak, it would not actually hurt anyone to NOT show any rabbits and to NOT make any purchases of rabbit, so that there are no rabbits coming in to your rabbitry for a few months. I can't believe that anyone would take rabbits to a rabbit show until USA is again shown to be a VHD-free country. To do otherwise is like when parents take their kids over to Jimmy's place because he has mumps, and they think it is better if you get that early in life. This disease is much more severe than anything you have ever seen, unless you have seen someone with Ebola virus or flesh-eating disease. The normal method of making sure that every rabbit in the country has the same diseases (the show circuit) could be completely devastated by this disease, with very high losses. See link to University of Georgia on Links Page.

The severity of the hazard from this disease is relative. You did't see people in Iowa and Utah going around wearing surgical masks; the disease does not affect them. But for rabbits, it is a serious and invisible danger. I can't believe that anyone would take rabbits to a show, or take them to any other function that requires taking them back home, during a time of a disease outbreak.

Is quarantine really possible?

Dr. Gregg suggests that effective quarantine is not possible or practical on small properties. If this is true, then rabbits can't go to shows and new rabbits can't be purchased (which would definitely be the safest course of action during any outbreak). But I think a simple quarantine room is possible, whether or not it is practical for your circumstances is another matter. Basically what you would need is a separate shed, as far as possible from any other rabbits, which is washable and fully fly-screened and naturally ventilated. Inside this shed you need one or more hanging cages, with a plastic deflector board to prevent feces, urine and hair from dropping onto the pathway. You need feeders which can be filled from the top without touching them, same for the water bottles. Then you can put in a rabbit, and just feed and water it at arm's length for the quarantine period, do not touch it or anything else in the room. You will need a boot-wash in the doorway.

You might just be able to get away with doing it this way. You can add on to this setup with special coveralls, but then you have to touch those to remove them, so it gets complicated; better off to not touch any rabbits in the quarantine, for the 60 days. Regarding the 5-day quarantine that the government suggests - suppose you set that up, and put the rabbits there after a show. Two days later someone phones you to say that all their rabbits have died, how are yours doing? You are now the next victim, but, because you have made the quarantine, the disease might not go beyond you. So congratulate yourself on being a rabbit hero, while you watch yours die, and you will probably lose all your rabbits, because of not taking the sanitary precautions.

What sanitation procedures can be used in transporting rabbits?

First of all, let me say that there is no suitable sanitation procedure for transporting any rabbits that have to leave your place and RETURN. Rabbits simply cannot leave AND return. Here I will describe transporting rabbits to the slaughter house - please read this even if you find that topic repulsive, it will show you the reasons why you cannot take rabbits for a ride and bring them back again.

Several simple rules need to be observed in transporting rabbits. When I take rabbits to the packing plant, they are always in my own shipping cages. These cages touch NOTHING at the plant. If I have to set them down, it is on a cut-open feed sack with plastic liner. NOTHING goes back into my vehicle unless it is sprayed with 15% bleach solution, so all cages are washed and bleached before returning to the vehicle. Bleach is hard on rabbits, so you can see that no rabbits can go back into the vehicle. This eliminates the possibility of going to rabbit shows. There are no footprints from anywhere in my vehicle. Boots are the last thing to go into the vehicle when packing up to head for home, and they are sprayed with bleach before they enter the vehicle. Remember, when bleaching things, it needs at least 5 minutes of being wet with the bleach to be effective, and that on surfaces which have already been washed clean. Don't bother using bleach on dirty items, it is not effective. When going to the packing plant, I have en entirely different set of clothes than what is used in the rabbitry, AND over that, one of those non-woven coveralls which is worn while at the packing plant, then removed before getting back in the vehicle and put into a sealed plastic bag. On returning, the bag is opened right into a bucket of bleach, to soak the coveralls. Whether or not they are reused does not matter, they either need to be bleached or burned immediately. So, relating this to a rabbit show, you violate these rules by setting your carrying cages down on the tables, by letting people handle your rabbits, by putting all manner of unbleached items back into your vehicle, possibly contaminating it beyond redemption as well as entirely contaminating yourself. Now, you want to bring those rabbits home and put them into a quarantine room? You are contaminated, your vehicle is contaminated - how can you begin cleaning up?

Benefits of the use of VHD in Australia; a huge difference in attitude between two continents!

The following material (between the next two horizontal lines) is from http://www.austmus.gov.au/eureka/2000/winner_pol.htm

The $10,000 POL Eureka Prize for Environmental Research Awarded for research in any field of the biological, physical, mathematical or biomedical sciences leading to the resolution of an environmental problem or the improvement of our natural environment. The essential criteria are scientific excellence and some manifest benefit to the natural world. Sponsored by POL Publications.

The winner is: Dr. Brian Cooke, CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology.

For research over 30 years which has combined an unsurpassed knowledge of rabbit biology and ecology with diligent, dedicated and innovative research and effective advocacy with the singular aim of reducing the devastating environmental impact of the European wild rabbit in semi-arid regions of Australia. His research culminated in the testing of Rabbit Calicivirus disease which, although prematurely escaping from Wardang Island in 1995, has nevertheless fulfilled expectations - the near complete control of rabbit populations throughout vast regions of Australia, and stronger native fauna populations and more productive pastoral lands.

"There is no ecologist in the world who does not know the story of the devastation wrought by the European rabbit in Australia," commented Professor Charles Krebs from the University of British Columbia. "The ecologist they all recognize at the head of the effort to reduce this environmental damage is Dr Brian Cooke. Brian Cooke very much led the scientific charge against the rabbit over the past 30 years, and he is one of the great, yet unheralded ecologists of our time for the research he has accomplished."

"The problem with rabbits is that they change whole ecosystems. By preventing regeneration of native grasses and shrubs, they have been slowly changing the Australian landscape and reducing the habitat available for mammals, birds and insects alike," commented Dr Brian Cooke.

"In some ways, tackling the rabbit problem is like a doctor treating a patient - except that you are dealing with a whole ecosystem rather than an individual. Biological controls such as myxomatosis, calicivirus and the introduction of rabbit fleas are the ecological equivalents of antibiotics; they help to reduce the impact of a foreign organism and give the ecosystem a chance to recover. Biological controls have been the only remedies capable of working on a big enough scale to benefit conservation nationally."

In keeping with his lifetime's research, Dr. Cooke continues to monitor the impact of calicivirus in order to predict how long it might persist as a useful biological control, and to see if it might be further manipulated for greater conservation and animal production for the long term.

Publisher of POL Publications, Peter Berman, presented Dr Cooke with this year's POL Eureka Prize for Environmental Research at the Eureka Prizes award ceremony. There are 4 judges of the POL Eureka Prize - Professor Mike Archer, Professor Alistair Gilmour, Professor of Environmental Studies at Macquarie Univ., Professor David Patterson, School of Biological Studies, Univ. of Sydney, and Robyn Williams, ABC radio.

Besides this award, consider the CSIRO press release in 1995 before RCD was legal in Australia which states: (from: http://www.csiro.au/communication/rabbits/pr29oct.htm)

The RCD Program will now be working with State and Commonwealth agencies to maximize the impact of RCD on wild rabbits whilst working quickly to protect domestic and farmed rabbits.

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