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Everything we know about the rabbit haemorrhagic disease outbreak so far

File picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)

File picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jul 16, 2023


Johannesburg -  South Africa has reported 218 outbreaks of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH). The outbreak was first reported in November 2022 and has since spread to five provinces.

There have been 165 outbreaks reported in the Northern Cape, 41 outbreaks in the Western Cape, 6 in the Free State, 5 in the Eastern Cape and an outbreak was confirmed in Gauteng Province.

Up until the first outbreak in 2022, South Africa had historically been free of RHD, and vaccination had not been allowed. It became evident, however, that voluntary vaccination was necessary to protect rabbitries.

A joint effort between the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), and the Registrar of Act 36 of 1947 has made it possible for inactivated vaccines to be used legally in South Africa.

In a statement, spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Land reform and Rural Development Reggie Ngcobo said:“Vaccine has now been successfully imported and rabbit owners have the option to prevent or control the disease by requesting vaccination through their private veterinarians. Carcasses of RHD-infected rabbits may be a major source for viral spreading, since the virus seems to be highly resistant and stable, even when exposed to harsh environmental conditions,”

Despite the challenges of implementing biosecurity measures in wild populations, rabbit owners are advised to practise good biosecurity, confine their rabbits securely, and prevent any contact with other rabbits or hares.

Bonnie Schumann of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Drylands Conservation Programme who has been monitoring the outbreak said: “The disease is specific to rabbits and hares (lagomorphs) and cannot be transmitted to people and other animals. However, between lagomorphs, it is highly contagious and easily transmitted, normally through direct contact, but may also be carried by flies and scavengers feeding on carcasses, on clothes, shoes and car tyres, or carried on the wind. RHDV is a controlled animal disease.

For the sake of preventing further spread of the disease, the public is advised not to handle or move carcasses. It is recommended that rabbit owners exercise strict quarantine at home for their pets.

For advice on safe disposal of pet carcasses, contact your local vet or state veterinarian when unavoidable contact occurs, such as when a pet rabbit dies. All contaminated surfaces should be disinfected with bleach and clothing items need to be washed at a warm temperature

“Section 11 of the Animal Diseases Act (Act No 35 of 1984) states that it is the responsibility of the owner of animals and the owner and manager of the land on which animals are kept, to prevent disease from entering the animal population and if already present, to prevent the further spread thereof,” said Ngcobo.

Members of the public are encouraged to report any dead or dying rabbits or hares to the nearest State Veterinarian for investigation.