State officials warn about ‘sleeping sickness’

Published 8:30 am Thursday, May 23, 2024

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It’s called “sleeping sickness”, something that causes impaired vision, circling and head pressing in horses. In severe cases, it can lead to paralysis and even death. As we head into the summer months, officials from the Virginia Department of Agriculture are asking Charlotte County residents to go ahead and vaccinate horses now, to prevent problems.

The issue is that summer is mosquito season and mosquitos bring problems with them such as the West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis. And while neither of those have been reported so far this year in the county, it’s better to take precautions, officials say.

“Prevention is key to equine health and vaccinations are a great way to provide protection,” said Dr. Charles Broaddus. He works as a veterinarian with the Virginia Department of Agriculture. “Vaccinations may be effective for up to a year; however, many veterinarians may recommend vaccination every six months in areas where the disease occurs frequently. For the vaccine to be effective, it must be given at least two weeks before the horse is exposed to the virus. To stimulate full immunity, horses must be vaccinated twice, about 30 days apart, during the first year of vaccination.”


Eastern Equine Encephalitis, also called “sleeping sickness,” causes inflammation or swelling of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include impaired vision, aimless wandering, head pressing, circling, inability to swallow, irregular staggering gait, paralysis, convulsions, and death. West Nile Virus typically causes inflammation of the brain which leads to a loss of coordination, lack of interest in their surroundings and loss of appetite and can cause the horse to go down and be unable to get up without help.

As the mortality rate for horses with West Nile Virus is 30% and up to 90% for Eastern Equine Encephalitis. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) encourages equine owners to contact their veterinarian to schedule vaccinations for these diseases.

Now no, humans can’t get infected with EEE or West Nile Virus by handling an infected horse. A horse also can’t pick up the virus directly from another infected horse.

However, the presence of an infected horse in an area indicates that mosquitoes carrying these viruses are present, and those insects pose a threat to both humans and horses. Want to prevent mosquitos and stop the problem before it starts? Agriculture officials suggest:

Dumping or draining standing water breeding sites for mosquitoes, such as containers and puddles.

Using insect repellents and removing animals from mosquito-infested areas during peak biting times, usually dusk to dawn.

Turning off the lights in and around the barn at night.


If you have questions about either virus, you can call the Virginia Department of Agriculture’s Office of Veterinary Services at 804-786-2483.