New York Amish vaccinate horses against deadly brain disease

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 29, 2012 3:36 PM
New York Amish vaccinate horses against deadly brain disease

By Holly McKenna

ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - Amish farmers, whose beliefs stop them from inoculating their children but not their horses, thronged a first-ever free veterinary vaccination clinic this week to fend off a disease that has killed a dozen horses and a four-year-old girl.

Demand for the vaccine against Eastern Equine Encephalitis, the mosquito-borne disease that attacks the brain, was so high at the two-day state-funded clinic that veterinarians vaccinated nearly 40 horses on Thursday and were expected to treat another 150 horses on Friday.

The disease was blamed for the death last year of 4-year-old Maggie Sue Wilcox in the town of New Haven, near New York's border with Canada, along with 12 horses. The disease has also killed five other people in the St. Lawrence River area in the last four decades.

The encephalitis can affect people, dogs and livestock, including horses.

"Yet many horse owners, farmers and others are still unaware of the danger both to their families and to their farm animals," said Senator Patty Ritchie, who represents several counties with large Amish populations in the upstate New York region.

The shots are funded by a special grant Ritchie obtained from the state, and in cooperation with two local veterinarians who helped publicize the event. The first session took place at an Amish farm in Heuvelton, the second was scheduled for Wilcox's hometown of New Haven.

"These clinics aim to educate farmers and horse owners, and protect a very valuable investment," Ritchie said.

The Amish are known for living apart from the rest of society based on their religious teachings. In their self-reliant culture, the Amish abstain from most government activities, including voting, vaccinating their children and receiving public assistance, although they do pay taxes.

However, some Amish communities believe it is within church teachings to protect horses, including with inoculation, since they are important to farmers' livelihoods.

The free clinic, open to all farmers, was conducted just as the highest risk of transmission heats up in late July and September when mosquitoes plague communities. There is no human vaccine and the horse version is 90 percent effective against the disease which is almost always fatal in horses.

There are some 11 different Amish communities in the area with varying beliefs and practices about interacting with the non-Amish.

Since members shy away from most government interaction, there is no way to count the Amish population, which is believed to have grown in the last few decades with people traveling from Ohio and Pennsylvania to buy up farms in the area.

With the Amish shunning modern technology, the biggest challenge was getting out the word about the clinic, said Jim Reagen, the senator's community relations director.

Word of mouth promotion was carried out by several Amish families, local blacksmiths and tack shops and Jack Zeh, one of the veterinarians, who publicized the event at an Amish barn raising earlier in the week. Fliers also were handed at Amish church services and at Amish farms by local businesses that buy milk from the Amish.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg; and Jackie Frank)