nat 142

A New Epidemic Proves Fatal to 21 Foxhounds

August 25, 2000

MILLBROOK, N.Y., Aug. 22 -- For  months, no one could figure out why
the  foxhounds here were suddenly dying.

 One after another, the fit and feisty  hounds of the Millbrook
Hunt became haggard and lethargic. They lost weight and  patches of
hair. They developed enlarged  joints, crusty skin lesions and
ropelike knots  underneath their skin. In all, 21 dogs out of a
group of about 120 died, and another 20 or so  became ill.

 This spring, researchers at North Carolina State University
identified the culprit: a  strain of a parasitic disease called
leishmaniasis, which is normally transmitted by   sand flies and
has killed humans in other  countries, but had rarely been
diagnosed in  the United States.

 But that was not the only surprise researchers eventually

Far from  being limited to Millbrook, the disease has  been
detected in dozens of foxhounds from  roughly 40 kennels in 20
states and Canada.  And though none of those dogs have died, the
outbreak caused the cancellation of all fox-hunting  events around
the country last  spring.

 As the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
analyzes the situation,  the good news is that leishmaniasis has
not  been found in other types of dogs or animals,  or in humans.
But there are still more  questions than answers about how the
disease got to this country, how it is transmitted and what may lie
ahead, offering another reminder of how once-exotic diseases,  like
the West Nile virus,  are no longer all  that unusual as possible
threats to public  health.

 "Today's world is so much smaller than it  used to be," said
Richard Falco, a  medical entomologist at the Louis  Calder Center
of Fordham University in Armonk, N.Y. "We're at the  point where
the urban and rural collide. So when these exotic diseases  arrive,
we sort of have everything  set up to have a public health problem,
and we really have to be on  guard."

 M.J. Sharp for The New York Times

 Drs. Edward Breitschwerdt and
Amanda Gaskin at North Carolina State University, where a parasitic
disease in foxhounds was identified.

 There are several similarities between the West Nile virus and
leishmaniasis (pronounced leash-men-EYE-a-sis). Both only recently
became widespread in  this country.  Leishmaniasis is typically
found in  warmer, coastal areas in places like  Brazil, the
Mediterranean, India and  the Sudan. If untreated, some strains  of
leishmaniasis can be fatal in humans; West Nile has killed seven
people in the New York area in the  last year. And sand flies,
found only  in the Southern United States, even  look like tiny
mosquitoes, albeit with  a nastier sting.

 But while West Nile has been detected in mosquitoes, birds,
animals  and humans across the Northeast,  leishmaniasis appears to
have  spread no further than the foxhounds.

 And in the process, it   has  unnerved the tight-knit world of
fox-hunting, which reveres its traditions  and treats its hounds as
members of  an extended family.

 This spring, the Masters of the  Foxhounds Association, the
sport's  national governing body, canceled all  fox-hunting events
and urged kennels to quarantine leishmaniasis-positive dogs. Now,
with the  fox-hunting  season set to begin in only a month or  so,
many fox hunters are hoping  they  can resume their activities.

 "We're being super-cautious, because nobody knows all the
answers," said Col. Dennis Foster, the  organization's executive
director.  "If there's any question, we don't do  it, that's our

 Here in rural Dutchess County,  where hunting is so ingrained that
the Millbrook Vineyards and Winery  sells a  table wine called Hunt
Country Red, life began to take on an  inexplicably cruel cast a
year ago,  when the foxhounds began to die.

 At first, the hunt and its veterinarians believed that a
tick-borne disease was responsible -- a logical  theory, given the
prevalence of Lyme  disease in the area. But after months  of
frustration, hunt officials sent two  of their sickest dogs, Signal
and Nelson, to the North Carolina State University College of
Veterinary Medicine, which has done extensive research on
tick-transmitted diseases.

 Signal and Nelson had to be euthanized. But their cases helped
researchers pinpoint leishmaniasis as  the unexpected villain.

 "This should not be in the U.S.,"  said Edward B. Breitschwerdt,
professor of medicine and infectious diseases at North Carolina
State.  "We're truly dealing with a foreign  animal disease that
remains very  unclear to all of us still."

 As Dr. Breitschwerdt's staff continued to work on molecular tests,
aided by some donations from the  hunt, the Centers for Disease
Control  stepped in, testing people who had  come into contact with
the foxhounds  in Millbrook and collecting samples  from all 10,000
or so foxhounds  around the country.

 While 12 percent of the 9,000  hounds tested so far have shown
some blood-test evidence of infection, only 1 percent have been
confirmed as being infected, said Dr.  Peter Schantz, a
veterinarian and  epidemiologist in the centers' division of
parasitic diseases.

 There are two other   strains of  leishmaniasis:  mucocutaneous, a
rare form that affects the mouth and  the genitals, and cutaneous,
which  affects the skin and has been reported in dogs along the
Texas-Mexico  border.

 But the strain humans are most  susceptible to is  visceral
leishmaniasis, the disease affecting the foxhounds. It can be cured
in humans,  but not in dogs; with drug treatments, however, dogs
can live with  the malady.

 The disease probably arrived in  this country when an American
soldier returned from Europe or Northern Africa with an infected
dog. In  fact, leishmaniasis was diagnosed in  several soldiers in
the Persian Gulf  war. (It is named for Sir William  Leishman, an
English military surgeon.)

 And since  hunting groups often  travel, many foxhounds, including
the Millbrook group, may have  picked up the disease while
participating in hunts in Georgia, Virginia  or other warmer
climates with sand  fly populations, Dr. Schantz said.

 Yet there has been no evidence of  any sand flies as carriers --
prompting speculation that the hounds may  have passed on the
disease by biting  or  some other method. Moreover, the  disease
may not manifest itself until  years later.

 "It's a potential public health  problem," said Dr. Schantz. "We
are  a very mobile universe right now.  People come and go with
their pets,  and pets are well-known reservoirs  of a number of
diseases. So I think  we're going to pick up these things

 Why the disease has attacked only  foxhounds is still a mystery.
But  veterinarians suggest a few possible  factors: inbreeding,
extensive travel  and the dogs' aggressiveness, which  causes them
to bite one another. And  though unlikely, it is also possible
that a carrier like a mosquito could  eventually add leishmaniasis
to its  portfolio of infectious diseases.

 "At this point in time, this is a dog  disease, and it's an
epidemic,"  Dr.  Breitschwerdt said. "But I know  what the
potential of this epidemic  might be, both for the foxhounds and
for the people, and that's weighed on  me tremendously."

 There is no evidence that dogs can  transmit the disease directly
to humans. But the  potential risk has been  enough to cause some
animal rights  advocates, who have long disliked  the sport, to
call for a moratorium on  fox-hunting activities.

 "It would be selfish on the part of  the fox hunters to continue
with their  recreational activity when there's  even a slim chance
that this might be  a threat to humans, domestic pets or
wildlife," said Michael A. Markarian, executive vice president of
the  Fund for Animals.

 But in the Millbrook area, the reaction has been much more
subdued,   with most people interviewed saying  that they had
either heard nothing or  little about the outbreak, or that it  was
low on the ever-expanding list of  diseases and hazards.

 One businesswoman, Kathie  Kessler, who owns Eclectic Designs,  an
interior and architectural design  store, said that her dog, a
Labrador  retriever, had been sickened by a  mysterious ailment for
several  months; the symptoms included  weight loss, vomiting and
enlarged  joints.

 And though she counts several  hunt members as clients and proudly
displays a charcoal fox-hunting  sketch in her showroom, she had
not  heard of the disease until a visitor  asked about it. "I'll
mention this to  my vet," she said earnestly.

 The hunt, meanwhile, has worked  with local health authorities and
sent  letters to local landowners and members assuring them that
the infected  dogs, now quarantined, have been  improving with drug
treatment and  that fox-hunting can resume as  scheduled this fall.
Even so, the ordeal has been difficult to handle.

 "The lowest point for us was when  we didn't know what we had,"
said  Farnham F. Collins, joint-master of  the Millbrook Hunt.
"Since then, I  don't think we're all celebrating, but  at least we
know what we're up  against."

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