Pimlico's Horses Quarantined for Equine Herpes

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An outbreak of equine herpes has hit race horses stabled at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. While the disease is not unusual, it spreads in an epidemic fashion, so the entire race course is now under quarantine.


This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


I'm Steve Inskeep.

More than 100 horses at a Maryland racetrack have been isolated after some developed an equine version of herpes. The 11 infections prompted a quarantine at Pimlico. Now the infection itself is not so unusual but there's some evidence the virus may have become more powerful. NPR's Joanne Silberner has more.


The herpes virus family is a big one. Various versions infect people and all sorts of animals. Maryland state veterinarian, Guy Hohenhaus says the herpes virus that infects horses can cause different symptoms; most often, breathing problems or abortions in pregnant mares. It can also cause extreme lameness and lack of coordination.

Dr. GUY HOHENHAUS, DVM (State Veterinarian, Maryland Department of Agriculture): The neurologic manifestations of this herpes virus are usually the most rare of the occurrences but probably the most dramatic because you have horses that are very sick and dying and that often happens in an epidemic fashion rather than individual animals.

SILBERNER: Hohenhaus is the state veterinarian of Maryland where Pimlico racetrack is and he's been dealing with a mini-epidemic of the neurologic version since the first case three weeks ago. Veterinarian epidemiologist David Powell has been watching the epidemic from Kentucky at the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center. When vets see something worrisome, they'll send tissue or blood samples off to places like Gluck. Powell says they've been identifying just a few herpes outbreaks a year but then…

Dr. DAVID POWELL (Veterinarian Epidemiologist, Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center, University of Kentucky): In 2005 we've recorded six outbreaks and then unfortunately, beginning in this year, we've had the outbreak reported at Pimlico.

SILBERNER: Powell's co-workers have detected a mutation in the virus in some of the other outbreaks that they suspect makes the symptoms more serious or easier to spread. They're checking the Pimlico virus now. Powell says humans have nothing to worry about.

POWELL: There is no evidence that herpes viruses can cross species, i.e. equine herpes viruses do not infect humans and vice versa.

SILBERNER: There was a similar outbreak last year at Churchill Downs just before the Kentucky Derby but it cleared in time for the race to go off. Maryland state veterinarian, Guy Hohenhaus is not worried about the second race of the Triple Crown, the Preakness, in mid-May.

HOHENHAUS: These things usually get sorted out within a couple months and so we should have adequate time to do that.

SILBERNER: There is a vaccine for equine herpes but it's not completely effective. Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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