The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released an interactive map, which shows the alarming spread of a rabbit hemorrhagic disease, allegedly caused by a virus that is being referred to as “bunny Ebola.”
According to a recent Business Insider article, in the Southwestern United States, thousands of domestic and wild rabbits pass away due to this rare outbreak of rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV2). So far, it has been spotted in seven states.
What does this mean for humans?
Although nothing about the virus has any technical relation to the human virus responsible for Ebola, it similarly harms a rabbit’s body. The virus is known to cause severe lesions in the tissues and organs of an animal, which ends up causing internal bleeding and then death. Unfortunately, it’s not readily apparent most of the time, if a rabbit has been infected. Typically, it isn’t noticeable until they suddenly pass away, often leaking blood from the nose.
At this time, there is no evidence that humans can get this virus.
Both domestic and wild rabbits have been infected.
Since April of this year, the USDA has documented cases of RHDV2 in California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Even as far south as western Mexico, the disease has been observed. The first case of something like RHDV2 was seen in China about 35 years ago. Since then, three prior North American outbreaks have occurred. Spread across almost every single continent, “variants of the virus” have been detected. This new RHDV2 virus is the only one capable of infecting all kinds of species native to North America, including rabbits, pikas, cottontails, jackrabbits, and snowshoe hares.
“The fact that this is in multiple counties and rabbitries, that’s why this is so concerning. And then to hear it’s burning through the wild rabbit populations, that, of course, furthers our concerns that much more,” said the executive director of the American Rabbit Breeders Association, Eric Stewart.
In wildly different locations across America, the virus evidently showed up in the past couple of years. First, in Ohio, pet rabbits were found to have it in 2018. A completely separate outbreak occurred in Washington State. In late February of this year, over 12 rabbits passed away in Manhattan at the Centre for Avian and Exotic Medicine. Within minutes as they described, they succumbed to the virus after suffering from seizures.
Though the past incidents of this virus seem to be unrelated, now we have this southwestern outbreak, which seems to have surfaced in New Mexico and Arizona.
An unbelievable number of fatalities have been reported by a New Mexico veterinarian, Ralph Zimmerman. He said: “We still have no idea where it originated. It’s snowballed and moved like mad. We had one guy with 200 rabbits, and he lost them all between a Friday afternoon and Sunday evening. It just went through and killed everything.”
Between March and June, approximately 500 animals in New Mexico suffered from the condition. Complicated, sad, possibly necessary measures were sought to prevent the spread of the deadly disease. Officials in New Mexico instituted a policy if one rabbit in a home caught the virus, the remaining rabbits in the family should be put down.
Six hundred animals have been killed to try and stop the spread of the virus. It’s incredibly unclear how this virus could have spread, continent to continent, across several distant regions of the US at different times. However, it is suspected that more cases are out there, and it would make sense because how else would the virus jump from region to region?
“I’m going to be really honest with you. I think there are more cases than have been reported,” Jones the veterinarian continued.
What are the symptoms and traits of this virus?
Several traits of the virus make this situation dangerous. When it infects a host, the incubation period can be as little as three days. Sometimes, subtle symptoms are recognizable before it is fatal. Some rabbits experience visible appetite loss and loss of energy. However, some show no symptoms before it is instantly fatal.
Blood clotting and organ failure often cause the most problems, with livers and spleens suffering the most. An alarming death rate of about 90 percent of rabbits infected with RHDV2 is currently being reported.
It is known to spread very quickly through blood, urine, and feces. It is believed that the few surviving bunnies remain a great danger to the rest for up to two months, as they continuously shed the virus.
The virus is known to stick to shoes, hair, and clothing; therefore, if humans walk around an area where infected rabbits were, the outbreak can very quickly be accelerated. Though at this time, humans cannot get this virus, humans can spread it.
It is even believed that insects, touching the rabbits, can spread the particles wherever they go.
This virus is also hard to kill. The pathogens can survive for over three entire months at room temperature. It can even withstand temperatures of 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 C) for an hour at least, and freezing doesn’t kill it either.
“This isn’t just going to go away,” Jones solemnly concluded. “This is a new problem that’s here to stay.”
So to all those who raise rabbits, be careful if you notice just one of them with a loss of appetite or energy. It has not yet been specified what would happen if you consume an infected rabbit, but considering the extremely strong nature of the virus, it’s not a good idea.
A human version of this virus would be incomprehensible: over 90 percent mortality.
Cassius K. is a writer from North Highlands, California.