A Prince George, British Columbia veterinarian is warning other veterinarians and horse owners about West Nile in the province. Little information is available at this point, but the warning is in response to a diagnosis of West Nile infection in a horse from the area. The report calls it a "deadly disease" but it would be more appropriate to call it a "potentially deadly disease," since most horses that are exposed don’t get sick, and many sick horses recover. I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of West Nile, but it’s important to keep it in perspective and make people panic.
The BC CDC has an ongoing West Nile surveillance program because of the obvious concern as this virus has worked its way across North America over the last decade. While it’s taken it’s time getting to BC, West Nile virus has been identified in the province, and only time will tell whether it becomes a serious health concern for horses or people. The latest update of the BC CDC surveillance data indicates one positive horse, but no positive humans (of 415 tested) or mosquito pools (2282 tested). The one equine case that was documented was from Central Okanagan. The horse had clinical signs consistent with infection, although the severity and outcome are not reported.
It’s unclear to me whether this Prince George case is something that’s happened just recently or whether the horse was sick. It’s pretty late in the year for a mosquito-borne virus, but not impossible in some areas.
Does this report mean that horse owners in BC should be concerned? Maybe. "Aware" might be a better term.
Horse owners and veterinarians always need to be aware of the infectious disease risks in their area, and areas to where a given horse may travel. Keeping apprised of ongoing West Nile virus surveillance can help determine the likelihood of exposure, but that doesn’t mean you can wait until there’s a case next door before you do anything. (Someone has to have the first case in an area, and you don’t want that to be you.)
Whether or not to vaccinate against this virus depends on the likelihood of exposure and risk aversity. Available vaccines are rather safe and effective (not 100% on either account, like any vaccine, but quite good overall), and vaccination decisions should be made based on a well-reasoned discussion between veterinarian and owner, considering a variety of factors such as where the virus has been found and how much risk everyone is willing to take.
The news report has a quote recommending vaccination in the spring. That’s the typical time people vaccinate against mosquito borne diseases, but that’s not my recommendation. For me, the goal is to vaccinate so that peak immunity is present at the time when exposure is most likely. West Nile virus is classically a late summer/fall disease, based on mosquito types and their biting patterns. For that reason, I like to see horses vaccinated a little later in the year – closer to the high risk period. Again, it’s important to know disease trends in each region to make the most informed decision.
So, horse owners in BC should be aware but not panic. A good discussion about vaccination and about general mosquito avoidance practices should be the first thing that happens.