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Presence of deadly rabbit and hare disease confirmed in six counties across Ireland

Cases of the disease have been found in Cork, Clare, Leitrim, Offaly, Wicklow and Wexford.

The disease can cause sudden death with no clinical symptoms.
The disease can cause sudden death with no clinical symptoms.
Image: Shutterstock/William Booth

A CONTAGIOUS VIRUS that kills rabbits and hares within days of infection has been confirmed in six counties in Ireland. 

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 (RHD2) has been confirmed in Cork, Clare, Leitrim, Offaly, Wicklow and Wexford, the minister responsible for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Josepha Madigan, has confirmed.  

The disease has been found in 12 animals but the actual number of infected rabbits and hares could be far higher as samples in a number of these cases were taken from one animal drawn from a larger group of dead animals. 

Rabbits and hares with the disease died within days and had swollen eyelids, partial paralysis and bleeding from the eyes and mouth.

In the latter stages of the disease, animals exhibit unusual behaviour such as going out into the open and convulsing before dying due to internal bleeding and organ failure.

This virus was first reported in Ireland in domestic rabbits last year. The first rabbits found dead in the wild were submitted for testing in July 2019 and the department received confirmation of the disease in August. 

After a hare was found with the disease on 9 August, the catching of hares in nets, transportation in boxes and the collecting/holding of the animal in confined areas was suspended until the virus could be more clearly understood.   

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed said his department will continue to offer laboratory services to support the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in its monitoring of this outbreak. 

Transmitting the disease 

The disease can be transmitted directly through fluids such as saliva and urine or indirectly through clothes, animals or insects. 

It was first reported in domestic rabbits in China in 1984 and killed millions of animals within a year of its discovery. In 2010, the RHD2 strain emerged in France and was shown to infect both hares and rabbits.

RHD2 was detected in Australia in 2015 and within 18 months, it had spread across the country and became the dominant strain of the virus, according to a 2018 study

Head of Animal Ecology at the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) Dr Ferdia Marnell said the disease is largely a mystery with a mortality rate of somewhere between 10% and 70%. 

“Symptoms can be very variable… this is a rapidly evolving situation,” Marnell told TheJournal.ie. “Sometimes, there are no obvious symptoms at all.” 

The disease causes no threat to human health and it is safe to handle infected or dead rabbits and hares affected by the disease, according to Conservation Biologist at Queen’s University Belfast Dr Neil Reid.  

Answering a parliamentary question on the matter in recent days, Minister Josepha Madigan said she had no plans to appoint an independent assessor to supplement the work from the two departments.  

The NPWS has started a programme of surveillance across the country for diseased animals. 

The public is asked to be on high alert and to report any suspected sightings of diseased rabbits and hares by contacting the NPWS.  

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