When disease outbreaks occur, especially if they are novel to the affected population, there is a rush among some to give it a catchy name.
The problem is such names are not necessarily accurate or descriptive. That’s a problem. Just ask the U.S. pork industry, which in 2009 lost between $5 billion to $7 billion during the H1N1 influenza outbreak erroneously called “Swine Flu.”
Accordingly, there have been efforts by the scientific community to head this off by creating naming rules and thereafter only using the correct name and correct abbreviations referencing the disease, or causative agent, or both.
Consider bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Does that ring a bell to most? No? How about BSE? Still no? Okay, how about Mad Cow Disease? Oh yeah, now you’ve got it. See what I mean?
Right now, there is a virus affecting wild and pet rabbits. Caused by the rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus serotype 2, or RHDV2 for short, the disease is fatal and classified as a foreign animal disease in the U.S. This is the third time it has appeared in the U.S. since 2018. It has quickly spread across multiple southwestern states.
Importantly, please know RHDV2 does not impact human health.
But the June 2 edition of New York Magazine quoted someone as calling it “Bunny Ebola.” They used the term in the headline. So now guess what is popping up all over the Internet.
The person who coined the term is a certified veterinary practice manager with a veterinary-technician specialty in exotics at the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine in Manhattan. Note, she is not a veterinarian or disease specialist.
This disease has nothing to do with Ebola. Still, the lead paragraph quotes the practice manager as saying, “We tried to do CPR, but these rabbits were dead within minutes. They would convulse, scream horribly, and die.”
Contrast that to the USDA’s description. “Many times, the only signs of the disease are sudden death and blood-stained noses caused by internal bleeding. Infected rabbits may also develop a fever, be hesitant to eat, or show respiratory or nervous signs.”
There is no vaccine. Strict biosecurity is the only prevention. The highly contagious virus is very resistant to extreme temperatures. It can be spread through direct contact or exposure to an infected rabbit’s excretions or blood. The virus can also spread from carcasses, food, water, and any contaminated materials including people’s contaminated clothes and shoes.
Still, it caught the New York veterinarians by surprise before it appeared a month later in New Mexico. Of the 16 rabbits housed in the Manhattan practice, 14 died. In 2020 alone, the USDA says it has confirmed RHDV2 at 146 domestic premises and wildlife sites in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Texas.
As bad as this is for rabbit owners and those who care about wild rabbit and hare populations, a whole generation of 4H and FFA kids will forever call it Bunny Ebola.
There are some who will hear this and kill their rabbits or any that may come onto their property without good reason. They may fear Ebola themselves or simply not want to take any chances.
Saddest of all, this doesn’t respect the thousands of people who have contracted and died from the Ebola virus. During the 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa, 28,616 cases were confirmed and 11,310 deaths were reported in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
There were an additional 36 cases and 15 deaths that occurred when the outbreak spread outside of these three countries. There were four cases and one death in the U.S.
Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email firstname.lastname@example.org.