The killer Rabbit Haemorrhagic Viral Disease (RHD or RHVD) has now been positively identified along the Garden Route and in the Southern and Eastern Cape.
Mortalities among both wild rabbits and hares and domestic rabbits in those areas have been examined forensically and the presence of the virus has been confirmed.
Garden Route districts
Specific districts in which cases have been reported include Sedgefield, Bergplaas, Wilderness, Saasveld, Tramonto, Molen Drift, around George Airport and within George itself, Jonkersberg, Friemersheim, Glentana, Monte Christo, Klen Brak and Aalwynsdal.
Inland, the virus is spreading in and around Gauteng, too. New cases have been reported in Henley on Klip and Valley Settlements in Randvaal, Mullerstuine west of Vanderbijl Park, Lusthof near Hammanskraal, Boksburg, Boskruin in Randburg, and Potchefstroom.
Cases have also been confirmed from Banvlei near Bloemfontein.
And, suspected cases have been reported from Barrydale and Cape Town.
Rabbit lovers have described the disease as “pernicious” because there are so many ways in which the virus can be spread, and because the virus can survive outside a host for 90 days or more.
Thus, as only one example, it can be present in veld where an infected wild rabbit lived, and be tramped into a domestic rabbitry on the shoes of a worker, or through supplying contaminated hay as bedding or feed. There are many, many other vectors for infection, too.
Post-recovery infectious period
Furthermore, a rabbit that somehow survives an infection remains infectious to others for around 60 days. So reintroducing an otherwise recovered survivor into a rabbitry too early may simply result in the cycle of infection being perpetuated.
Spread by wild rabbits
But the big problem with the spread is that wild rabbits and hares can’t be confined to their specific locations. They will move about at will, spreading the virus seemingly randomly and dying as a result.
This, more than anything, poses a danger of the virus very quickly spreading nationwide and overborder, and renders any attempts to quarantine domestic rabbits less effective.
Petting zoos and party farms
Not to mention that domestic rabbitries exist to breed new rabbits for sale, and many more rabbits are kept in petting zoos and party farms, or used as therapy pets, where they are exposed to visitors daily – visitors who may have tramped through contaminated veld…
So quarantining of domestic rabbits cuts off the revenue stream of those who keep them for profit.
Notifiable by law
The disease is notifiable by law, meaning suspected cases must be reported to the nearest State Veterinarian, who will examine the carcass and confirm the presence of the virus.
But because wild rabbits and hares exist independently in burrows in open veld, many occurrences remain undiscovered and go unreported.
In many cases the only indication that the virus is having a fatal effect in an area is when somebody notices that previously plentiful populations of wild rabbits seem simply to have disappeared.
So getting a true picture of the extent of the outbreak and spread is near impossible, and certainly reportage of case number and mortalities will be way below what is actually occurring.
Plus, of course, the process of officially reporting cases requires the local State Vet’s office to carry out a forensic examination etc, and those vets responsible for areas in which breakouts have occurred risk becoming overwhelmed with work, resulting in official reporting of case numbers etc being less-than-prompt.
Health & safety protocols
For details of how to mitigate the risks of the disease among your rabbits, go here.
The good news is that the disease is specific to rabbits and hares, and poses no threat to other small stock, or humans etc.
Resources for communicating
If you are involved in keeping rabbits in any way here are two resources trying to maximise awareness and tracking of the disease, one a Whatsapp group named RHVDHOTLINE, the other a Facebook page.
Main image: Google Maps, with affected districts marked by GRBA, as of 17 Oct 2023