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Rabbit owners urged to get pets vaccinated

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South Africa is in the grips of a rabbit haemorrhagic disease outbreak, with the majority of cases occurring in the Northern Cape.

Of rabbits that are exposed to the virus, almost all die. File picture

SOUTH Africa is in the grips of a rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) outbreak, with the vast majority of cases occurring in the Northern Cape.

The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) said the country currently has 218 RHD outbreaks reported to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH). RDH does not pose any threat to humans or other domestic animals.

Most of the outbreaks occurred in the Northern Cape (165) and the Western Cape (41), while a smaller number of outbreaks were reported from the Free State (6) and Eastern Cape (5). Most recently, an outbreak was confirmed in Gauteng.

Bunny owners have been urged, with extreme urgency, to get their long-toothed pets vaccinated.

DALRRD media liaison officer and spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo said South Africa had been historically RHD free up until the first outbreak in November 2022 and vaccination against the disease was not previously allowed in the country. However, the need for voluntary vaccination to protect rabbitries has become clear.

RDH can be caused by two different, related viruses, RHDV1 and RHDV2. The current outbreak is due to the RHDV2 virus. It is highly contagious and affects rabbits, both domesticated and wild. Of rabbits that are exposed to the virus, almost all die.

An RHD viable virus has been detected for as long as 105 days on objects or materials which are likely to carry infection, at room temperature and in decaying tissue of infected carcasses for up to 90 days; it persists in chilled or frozen rabbit meat.

The virus can remain viable for 22-35 days at 22.2 degrees Celsius and it can survive freeze-thaw cycles.

RHD is caused by a highly contagious virus and is spread between rabbits through direct contact with saliva, nasal secretions, urine, manure, blood and fur or carcasses of infected rabbits. It can also be spread by contaminated objects, like food, bedding, water and cages.

Ngcobo added that the DALRR and the Registrar of Act 36 of 1947 have worked together to make provision for the legal use of inactivated vaccines in South Africa. Vaccines have now been successfully imported and rabbit owners have the option to prevent or control the disease by requesting vaccination through their private veterinarians.

Carcasses of RHD-infected rabbits may be a major source for viral spreading, since the virus seems to be highly resistant and stable, even when exposed to harsh environmental conditions. Since the first outbreaks in November 2022, in the Western Cape and Northern Cape, outbreaks have since also been confirmed in rabbits in the Eastern Cape, the Free State and Gauteng.

Even though bio-security measures are difficult to implement in wild populations, rabbit owners are advised to practise good bio security, ensure that their rabbits are securely confined and prevent any contact with other rabbits or hares.

Section 11 of the Animal Diseases Act (Act No 35 of 1984) states that it is the responsibility of the owner of animals and the owner and manager of the land on which animals are kept to prevent disease from entering the animal population and, if already present, to prevent the further spread thereof.

Members of the public are encouraged to report any dead or dying rabbits or hares to the nearest state veterinarian for investigation.

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