Central Florida Farms Handling West Nile Virus

By Tom LaMarra
and Ben Baugh

Though Florida has been hardest hit by West Nile vVrus this year, the number of confirmed cases in Marion County, home to Ocala and many horse farms, isn't out of line with the rest of the state, according to data registered through Oct. 31.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 344 confirmed equine cases of West Nile virus, 252 of them in Florida. Marion County had only 19 cases. Northern Florida counties have registered the most cases.

Dr. Genevieve Fontaine, equine extension veterinarian for the University of Florida, said 60 other cases are under investigation in Marion County, but the worst should be over. "This disease has historically been most active in the months between July and October," she said. "The farther south you go, there could be cases throughout the winter."

Dick Hancock, executive director of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association, said his office hasn't be inundated with calls from local horse farms concerning the virus. Farm managers said they have followed state recommendations and taken precautions.

"We had a horse that tested positive for the West Nile virus, and initially, we thought the horse may have had a three-day cold," said Jim Blalock of Blalock Training Center South. "The horse recovered and began training. We've sold the horse, and it's now training and racing in New York."

Fontaine said the virus hit at the time the vaccine was made available in Florida. The second dose of the vaccine triggers the immune system, so exposed horses were at higher risk when viral activity peaked this year. There would be a "vaccine break" if a horses develops West Nile virus two weeks after the second vaccination.

"I was advised by our veterinarian and other veterinarians to vaccinate because they believed the vaccine was safe, but we'll have to see how effective it is," said Farnsworth Farm manager Bill Allen. "We had several suspect cases before we vaccinated, and blood was drawn, but we haven't received the test results back."

Will Johnson, farm manager at Sez Who Thoroughbreds, said all horses on the farm were vaccinated, and none have contracted the virus.

"We've vaccinated every horse we have on the farm," said Mark Roberts, general manager of Adena Springs South. "We had one horse that the University of Florida thought may have been a possible West Nile virus case. But after blood was drawn and the fluids were sent off for further evaluation, the tests came back negative."

Fontaine said anyone who ships to Florida for the winter should be proactive and vaccinate horses before the trip south. Racing is concentrated in South Florida, where warmer temperatures could foster mosquitoes, which spread West Nile virus.