Rabbit Calicivirus

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD) ?

Rabbit Calicivirus Disease was a new name deliberately given to viral hemorrhagic disease of rabbits (VHD) by Australian scientists to be "less emotive". [Refer BRS Report, August 1996, "Rabbit Calicivirus Disease" Bureau of Resource Sciences, Australia]. VHD also internationally known as RHD (rabbit hemorrhagic disease) was first observed in China when it broke out in a shipment of Angora rabbits flown in from Germany in 1984. Some scientists think a parvo-virus may be involved in causing RHD. Koch’s postulate (a test which definitely defines the virus causing the disease) has never been satisfied by any laboratory except perhaps by a Chinese laboratory who are sure that a parvovirus may be involved. Meanwhile it has been accepted (for now) that RCD/RHD’s causative agent is a calicivirus.

In September 1995 Viral Hemorrhagic Disease (RCD) escaped from an Australian Government approved so-called "secure" island testing area on Wardang Island (approximately 4 kilometres from the coast of South Australia) to mainland Australia. Australian authorities then decided to declare VHD/RCD a biological control agent of the European rabbit in Australia.

Although the Australian authorities went through the motions of a "public consultion process", the valid concerns given by eminent overseas scientists regarding the dangers of deliberately spreading VHD/RCD and their submissions were ignored.

In 1997, the New Zealand authorities also considered importing RCD/VHD as a biological control agent of the European rabbit (they had voted with Australia through their ministers belonging to ARMCANZ in approving RCD/VHD as a biological control agent of the European rabbit for Australia.)

However, after a lengthy consideration process, the NZ authorities decided NOT TO APPROVE VHD/RCD as a biological control agent of European rabbits. Both the New Zealand Ministry of Health and the New Zealand Association of Scientists wrote submissions against adopting VHD/RCD as a Biological Control Agent of the European rabbit.

Subsequently, some New Zealand farmers illegally imported some VHD/RCD virus from Australia and spread RCD/VHD across the hill side. The New Zealand farmers deliberately infected captured rabbits and kept them caged until they died. Then they ripped out their livers and internal organs and put them in their kitchen blenders with water to mix with carrots and oats and spread the disease as if it were a pesticide, not a deadly live virus.

All pet and wild rabbits in Australia are European rabbits. This includes wild rabbits, lops, NZ whites, dwarfs, lops etc. All domestic rabbits in the USA are European rabbits and all rabbits in the UK (wild and domestic) are European rabbits.

For more detailed information about this disease I would like to point out to you some major findings:

Clinical Signs

*The mortality and most serious cases have been found in adult animals. The disease is characterised by causing a sudden death in 90-95% of the total herd. The rabbits die within 72 hours after experimental infection.
*It appears that the deaths of the rabbits is related to an association of hepatic and lung dysfunction.
*The affected rabbits show symptoms of depression, sadness, anorexia and dysnea.
*The rabbits show incoordination, crying, shaking and other nervous signs just before they die.
*The death rabbits show a mucus and blood-stained nasal exudate.
*In some cases clinical signs are not observed since the affected animals die suddenly.
*In some cases we have observed a jelly-like stool from the anal area as in mucoid enteritis.

Pathology-Gross Lesions

*There is an increase in the size of the liver, spleen and kidney. There is lung congestion and edema. Echymotic hemorrhages are observed in lungs and trachea.
*Some diagnosis reports have shown petechial hemorrhages on the serosal surface of the intestine and on the epicardium and endocardium of the heart of the rabbits.

2. Why change the name of the disease?

Australian scientists wanted to use RHD to kill wild European rabbits in Australia who they deemed to be a “pest species” and the use of the word “hemorrhagic” may have upset the Australian public. In Science magazine (Volume 272, 12th April 1996) officials from Australian Animal Health Laboratories were quoted as “pleading guilty to a bit of spin control:They acknowledge that attempting to use the term Rabbit Calicivirus Disease instead of RHD, to make the virus seem more innocuous , was an ill-conceived public relations ploy”. In a nutshell, Australian authorities deliberately mis-informed the Australian public as to what RHD really does to rabbits (causes hemorrhaging) - by deliberately omitting the word "hemorrhagic" and replacing it with "calicivirus". The OIE (International Office of Epizootics in France) named the disease Viral Hemorrhagic Disease of Rabbits in 1989 [Scientific and Technical Review , OIE, Volume 10, No 2 - Viral Hemorrhagic Disease of Rabbits and the European Brown Hare Syndrome]].

3. Why are Australian authorities deliberately spreading RHD as a biological control agent of European rabbits in Australia?

The Australian authorities thought RHD would be a cheap way to kill rabbits. Unfortunately, the authorities own tests on 28+ non-rabbit species showed high antibody levels in non-target species (native Australian Animals) which actually went above the cut-off level of 30% but this fact has been glossed over by Australian officials. [Refer BRS report August 1996 - Rabbit Calicivirus Disease]

4. Didn’t someone try to warn Australian scientists of the dangers of deliberately spreading RHD?

Yes. Dr Alvin Smith of Oregon State University, Professor of Calicivirus Studies and Dr David Matson, an eminent authority on caliciviruses in humans both wrote submissions to the Australian government warning of the dangers of using the deadly RHD virus but their submissions were ignored. Other opinions were given on the dangers of spreading RHD by Dr Franciso Parra, from the University of Oviedo in Spain and many other eminent scientists including Professor Leo Jeffcott from Cambridge University and Professor Esteban Domingo, a world authority on RNA viruses. Australian authorities chose to ignore world scientific opinion.

5. Is RCD/RHD killing rabbits in Australia?

Yes, in some areas the wild rabbits are dying and in some areas they are not. It has just been found that some wild European rabbits in Australia have antibodies to a benign relative of RHD that existed in Australia prior to the escape of RHD. A vaccinated pet rabbit died in Victoria and it is thought that the vaccine against this disease may not always protect peoples pet rabbits.

6. Is there a vaccine to protect pet rabbits in Australia?

Yes there is but many people have noticed adverse reactions in rabbits to the vaccine. Also, because RHD cannot yet be grown in the laboratory, the RHD vaccine is made from a base of livers taken from deliberately infected rabbits in Spain. This is morally and ethically very hard to accept for true animal carers - that another animal dies to make the vaccine to save their own.

7. Why doesn’t someone make a vaccine that isn’t made of a base of livers taken from deliberately infected rabbits?

Maybe there isn’t any money in it for the drug companies. After all, rabbits lives are cheap aren’t they, much cheaper than having to reinvest profits into research.

8. Does RHD cause suffering in rabbits?

In the United Kingdom, the vaccine company published a full page advert saying “Don’t let them scream for their vaccine” - The implication was that a rabbits last hours were often spent shaking, depressed and some rabbits had suffered a screaming death. These same symptoms were also noticed when RHD broke out in Mexico in the 1980’s. The Australian Authorities have spread much propaganda that RHD is the quiet death (because the rabbit sits still when it is very sick and doesn’t hop around) . Other sources have noted that very sick and suffering rabbits don’t normally want to hop around but that they normally do sit still because they are suffering.

9. Where is RHD and could my rabbit catch this disease?

RHD spread through Europe by epidemic and through Australia by escaping containment and through New Zealand by illegal introduction. So far, the USA is one of the last continents not to have been infected by RHD. However, RHD can live on clothing for over 100 days and can survive freezing and 60 degrees celcius. After the Mexican outbreak, antibodies to RHD were found in a Mexican laboratory worker. So far, the USDA have indicated that, in the event of an outbreak of RHD, they will not allow the vaccine but will kill all infected rabbits and perhaps those rabbits who have come in contact with infected rabbits. Australia and other infected countries are only a plane flight away from the USA. Also, Australian authorities have found that insects, including fleas and flies can carry RHD and perhaps migrating birds may carry the disease to other countries (either as carriers or on fleas or parasites).

10. What can I do to help?

Write to the Australian Prime Minister, The Hon. John Howard P.M., Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, 2600 and ask that RHD/RCD be de-listed as a Biological Control Agent of European rabbits. Write to the USDA and suggest that a better vaccine is manufactured to save pet rabbits should RHD ever arrive on the shores of North America. (A vaccine that is manufactured from RHD virus grown in a cell culture in a laboratory and not in live rabbits deliberately infected with RHD and killed for their livers to make the vaccine base - a practice that takes vaccine manufacture back to the days of Louis Pasteur) If you are visiting Australia or New Zealand, be aware that RHD is being deliberately spread across the continent. Don’t take the disease home on your clothing to your pets.

11. What is the bottom line in all the RHD issue?

The bottom line or the heart of the RHD issue is that no guarantees can be given by anyone that RHD will never jump species or increase its host range to include another host other than European rabbits (could humans be next?). Only God knows whether this disease will transfer its hemorrhagic capabilities to another species. Australian officials who continually preach the safety of spreading this deadly disease as a pesticide, forget that they are playing with a new deadly hemorrhagic virus of mammals for which there is no cure and no vaccines to protect any other species except European rabbits. The continued used of RHD as a biological control agent of wild European rabbits in Australia is dangerous, cruel and unacceptable.

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