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  • Rabbits are dying from a disease never detected in SA before

    Rabbits are dying from a disease never detected in SA before

    There is an outbreak of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD) in the Western Cape and Northern Cape. The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) became aware after receiving reports of die-offs of wild rabbits and hares in the Karoo areas.


    RHD is caused by the calicivirus and has never been detected in South Africa before. “The disease results in a high number of deaths in rabbits and hares and animals die suddenly with bleeding in the organs such as the liver, kidney and spleen,” said DALLRD.

    The department said it is unclear how the disease entered the country as the importation of rabbits and hares is prohibited. Illegal importation is being investigated as a potential source.

    Provincial veterinary services, private vets and the forestry, fisheries and environment department conducted field investigations in the affected areas.

    Samples were collected from the rabbits at autopsy and tests were performed at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Research Laboratory, which confirmed RHD as the cause of death.

    This transmission electron micrograph shows rabbit calicivirus isolated from the liver of an infected rabbit. The virus has been prepared using negative contrast electron microscopy. The virus has been labelled (inner box) with anti-rabbit calicivirus antibodies and colloidal gold. Image produced by Electron Microscopy Unit, Australian Animal Health Laboratory. Image: Creative Commons/CSIRO.


    RHD is controlled in rabbitries mainly through vaccination. The vaccine is not available in South Africa.  The RHD vaccines available in countries where the disease is endemic usually provide 12 months of protection.

    The carcasses of rabbits that died of the disease could be a major source for the spread of the virus as RHD appears to be highly resistant and stable even in harsh environmental conditions.

    “This increases the importance of biosecurity measures in rabbitries and anywhere where rabbits or hares are kept,” said the department.

    Rabbit owners are encouraged to keep their animals secure and away from other rabbits or hares – directly and indirectly through people or equipment.

    DALRRD said biosecurity measures are more difficult to implement in the wild and stressed that the occurrence of RHD in the Karoo is of great concern as the area is inhabited by the indigenous Red Rock rabbit, endangered Riverine rabbit and hare species, which are highly susceptible to the disease.

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


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