Durham County

NC horses threatened by deadly disease. Here’s how it can be spread and prevented.

11,000 horses live in Durham and Orange counties and they're in danger

North Carolina agriculture officials are reminding owners of horses. mules and donkeys to get them vaccinated
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North Carolina agriculture officials are reminding owners of horses. mules and donkeys to get them vaccinated

Durham and Orange counties often make national lists for their restaurants, entrepreneurs and institutions of higher learning. They also are home to a lot of horses, donkeys and mules — more than 11,000 by some estimates. Statewide, private owners, stables and other operations keep about 306,000 members of the horse family for lessons, trail rides, competitions and other events.

To protect those animals, the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services recently reminded horse keepers to make sure their horses, mules and donkeys are vaccinated against Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE). The notice came after the department confirmed the fifth and sixth cases of the diseases this year in North Carolina — one in a pony in Bladen County, the other in an American Quarter Horse in Camden County, according to a release. Neither animal had been vaccinated.

The state recorded nine cases of the disease in 2016, the Agriculture Department reported.

The vaccination is easily obtainable, and is among the preventive measures veterinarians encourage horse keepers to give their animals, said Nimet Browne, a clinical assistant professor of equine internal medicine at N.C. State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. For horses that do get infected, “the mortality rate of this disease is 90 percent,” she said. “Most horses that get this disease will die from it,” Browne said.

Mosquitoes infected with the EEE virus transmit it to horses and birds. Mosquitoes also can transmit the virus to humans, but cases in humans are rare, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In horses and related equine species, the virus causes imflammation or swelling of the brain and and spinal cord. Symptoms include impaired vision, aimless wandering, head pressing, inability to swallow, an irregular or staggering gait, paralysis and convulsions, according to a release. Once a horse has been infected, sympoms may take from three to 10 days to appear.

There is no evidence that horses can transmit the virus to other horses, birds or people through direct contact, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

The number of cases this year is about average, Browne said. “We can cut that number down if we are better advocates for the vaccine and mosquito prevention,” she said. The protection time for the vaccine is four to six months, Browne said. Inoculations are recommended twice a year, and sometimes three times a year in eastern North Carolina where the mosquito season is longer, she said.

“It’s a common vaccination,” and most horse owners give it as part of their prevention measeures, said Sue Gray, executive director of the North Carolina Horse Council. Gray’s organization has been following the numbers this year. “If we saw these numbers really, really rising, that’s an issue for us,” she said.

Horses and other equine animals account for $1.8 billion in inventory value, according to a 2009 report from the N.C. Horse Council. More than 53,000 households and operations keep equines, the report stated.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

Number of horses and other equine beasts in Triangle counties

▪  Durham. 5,490, $33.3 million in value

▪  Orange. 5,840, $35.5 million in value

▪  Chatham. 5,670, $34.5 million in value

▪  Wake. 7,730, $46.9 million in value

▪  Statewide: 306,210, $1.8 billion in value

Source: North Carolina Horse Council 2009 report, “North Carolina’s Equine Industry”