African Horse Sickness Prevention

African Horse Sickness, or AHS, is a phrase that every horse owner, trainer and exporter fears the most in South Africa and other African countries. It is a fatal disease that affects all breeds of horses, donkeys and mules, and has a very low recovery rate. The disease is not contagious and cannot be spread directly from one horse to another, but is spread by midges that carry the infection after biting an infected horse. Steps to prevent the spread of the disease have been put in place, and infected animals are isolated so as to save others from running the risk of getting African Horse Sickness.

Midges are most active in the early morning and just before sunset, which is when horses usually contract the disease. The summer months are the most dangerous, as midges die in the colder months. There are two forms of the disease that can be found, namely the lung form (dunkop), which is the most dangerous, and the heart form, referred to as dikkop. The symptoms connected to the lung form include an extremely high fever, struggling to breathe, nasal discharge and sudden death. With the heart form, horses start to get a fever, after which swelling can be noticed around their eyes and head. Horses will lose the ability to swallow and membranes by the mouth and eyes start to bleed. Fortunately, death only comes approximately four to eight days after the initial fever, providing an opportunity for treatment after it has been diagnosed, and therefore the heart form has a lower death rate. Diagnosis of the disease is done through blood tests in a laboratory.

Owners are required to report any AHS incidents to the State Veterinarian so that other owners in the area can be warned and prevention methods put into practice. Firstly, owners should ensure that their horses, donkeys and mules are vaccinated with the state approved AHS vaccination at least once a year. To reduce Cluicoides midge species activities, owners should keep their animals in the stables until after sunrise and let them back in before sunset. Known insect repellents, such as Tabbard cream, are used in South Africa to also reduce the risk of midges feeding on the animals. When an outbreak occurs, horses are prohibited from moving from one region to another, reducing the risk of moving a potentially infected horse to a clean area. Horses, or other animals, suspected of having AHS should be moved to an isolated area and monitored until a diagnosis can be made and the horse’s fate decided. Animals that are beyond rescue should be euthanized and disposed off in a safe manner, to further curb spread of the disease. Areas that have been affected by an AHS outbreak are monitored closely for at least a year after the incident.

Prevention methods and early protection against AHS are the only way that owners can really guarantee the health of their animals. Owners who are unable to call in the assistance of veterinary services due to costs involved, should either contact the African Horse Sickness institute or their state veterinarian, who will be able to help them with vaccines and education on prevention methods.

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