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Rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus leads to deaths of domesticated and wild rabbits in the Northen Cape

The Northern Cape Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs, Rural Development and Land Reform, can confirm that the high mortalities of domesticated and wild rabbits in the Namakwa District have been associated with rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV). The RHDV is a highly contagious and fatal disease of both domestic and wild European rabbits, which is found in many parts of the world, but has not been previously diagnosed in South Africa.

The virus is not on the list of controlled diseases; however, it is an exotic disease and a World Organization of Animal Health notifiable sickness.

This came after our veterinary unit received reports from farmers that wild rabbits were dying in large numbers around the area of Sutherland in the Namakwa District of the Northern Cape. Further investigations revealed that farmers in the area experienced large numbers of wild rabbit mortalities.

Since October 2022, the outbreaks of RHDV have spread from Sutherland to Springbok, about 300km west of the current outbreak and recently, mortalities have been reported in Augrabies. So far about 944 rabbits (294 domestic and 650 wild) are reported to have died on 85 Northern Cape farms.

RHDV spreads very rapidly and has a mortality rate of 80%. The high mortality rate, rapid spread and per acute deaths are of particular concern as the affected district is the stronghold of the critically endangered Riverine rabbit species. The virus is stable in the environment and can be spread by direct contact or via any mechanical vector such as biting insects, scavengers, birds, importation of infected rabbit meat and even humans.

The origin of the disease in the province is unknown and the investigation in collaboration with the Endangered Wildlife Trust is ongoing.

RHDV remains classified as an exotic animal disease in South Africa and suspect cases should be reported to the nearest state veterinary office. Meat and other products from wild or domestic rabbits that died from RDHV during, and outbreak should not be processed, transported, or sold. Dead rabbits must be removed immediately and discarded in a safe manner such as deep burial. Burial must be deep enough to discourage scavenging by wildlife. The community is thus encouraged to maintain strict biosecurity measures on their properties to prevent introduction of the disease.

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