(photo by Tim Jaynes, Staff)
SIKESTON -- If area horse breeders haven't vaccinated their horses with the West Nile virus, then this week's death of two Cape Girardeau County horses, believed to be infected with the virus, should prompt them to.
Every one of horse breeder Brian Heuring's 15 Belgian Draft horses received their initial dose of the West Nile virus vaccine at the beginning of August. A second shot is required three to six weeks later. Then a shot is given annually thereafter.
Each year Heuring, 23, and his father, Norman Heuring Sr., of New Hamburg, showcase their horses at Missouri, Illinois and Iowa state fairs. "We've been in the hot zone of the Mississippi River," Heuring said. "We've been traveling along the river."
Along the way, Heuring managed to talk to horse breeders from other states. They all have the same concerns, he said. Everyone was curious how each other's horses were doing and if they'd been vaccinated, he noted.
"We were just taken by surprise," Heuring explained. "It's always been something that experts have been talking about for the last few years, but we didn't expect it to be at a high level so soon."
According to Dr. Bretaigne Jones, staff veterinarian for the Missouri Department of Agriculture in Jefferson City, as of Wednesday approximately 56 possible West Nile horse cases exist within the state. About 33 percent of horses that contract the virus will die, she added.
Dr. Elizabeth St. John, a veterinarian at Tri-County Veterinary Hospital in Sikeston, has seen a dramatic increase over the last month in the number of local horse owners inquiring about the West Nile virus vaccine, she said. Currently, St. John doesn't know of any confirmed West Nile horse cases within Mississippi, New Madrid, Scott or Stoddard Counties.
Even though there aren't any confirmed cases in those counties, St. John recommends the vaccination. "Some people are thinking it's too late," she said. "But it's better late than never."
Vaccine shots vary in cost, depending on the veterinary visited. No matter what the price though, Heuring thinks the money is worth it.
Heuring reasoned: "It's a lot cheaper to prevent (the virus) than to treat."
Horses become infected with the West Nile virus the same way humans become infected -- by the bite of infectious mosquitoes. The mosquitoes become infected when they feed on infected birds or other animals, according to the CDC.
Following transmission by an infected mosquito, West Nile virus multiplies into the horse's blood system, crosses the blood brain barrier and infects the brain.
Symptoms of West Nile virus in a horse include droopy lips, muscle tremors, teeth grinding, headaches, lack of coordination and inactivity, St. John said.
St. John and Jones caution anyone who suspects their horse has contracted the virus to contact their vet immediately. Treatment is available for the virus, and it can reduce inflammation in the brain and lower fever, St. John explained.
According to CDC, there is no documented evidence of person-to-person or animal-to-person transmission of West Nile virus. As of Wednesday 269 reported human West Nile cases existed in the United States with 13 confirmed deaths.
Mosquito season could last until fall and well into November, St. John estimated. She recommends owners to take supplementary precautions. St. John advised owners to carefully watch their horses at least twice a day.
"Get out there and get a good look at them. Make sure they're alert. Sometimes it may look like they're just normally dozing so you might want to get out there and move them around to assure they're just taking a nap," St. John said.
Horse owners can also try to control the mosquito population. They can do this by emptying standing water every four or five days. Every little bit helps, she said.
"You never know," St. John warned. "It might be the infected mosquito that bites your horse."