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Olympics Bring Attention to Threat of Glanders in Horses

DENVER/Aug. 11 - With American horses participating in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, concerns are being raised about the risk of transporting horses to Brazil, where the disease glanders, caused by the bacterium Burkholderia mallei, is endemic.

Glanders, which causes lesions of the skin, lungs, and nasal passages, is a highly communicable and generally incurable disease affecting horses, mules, donkeys and, less commonly, humans. While glanders is usually rapidly fatal in donkeys and mules, horses can carry the disease and be contagious for years before succumbing to the disease. A diagnosis of glanders in a horse comes with devastating consequences: euthanasia for the horse, and extensive quarantine of the exposed stable and surroundings.

Morris Animal Foundation currently is funding a study at the University of Georgia investigating new strategies to combat glanders in horses by understanding how the bacterium interacts with its host to result in persistent infection.

“There are no effective vaccines to prevent the disease, and aggressive treatment with antimicrobials is largely ineffective,” said Sophie A. Aschenbroich, BSc, DVM, a University of Georgia doctoral candidate who has a training grant from Morris Animal Foundation. “Our research aims to identify how the bacterium modulates host genes to suppress the immune response and impact disease progression in infected patients.

“Understanding how the bacterium survives and evades the immune system will help researchers develop new therapeutic strategies to mitigate the disease and improve the survival rate in infected horses.”

Glanders has been eradicated throughout much of the world, including the United States. But countries in East Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East continue to experience endemic infection. Glanders has actually re-emerged in the past two decades, particularly in Brazil, where infections in horses and donkeys occur with some frequency, signaling the urgent need to fund research to lead progress toward prevention and treatment.

B. mallei also is classified as a Category B critical biological agent, meaning that it is a potential biological warfare agent. What is learned in horses also could advance the medical community’s ability to respond to a public health crisis

Steps are being taken in Brazil by the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure the health of equestrian competitors, but questions linger over the risk of infection not only in Brazil, but of the potential re-introduction of the disease to parts of the world where glanders has been eradicated.

“In today’s world of international connectivity, geographic borders are ineffective barriers to the introduction or re-introduction of potentially devastating diseases,” said Dr. Barbara Wolfe, Chief Scientific Officer at Morris Animal Foundation. “Research into the prevention and treatment of emerging diseases is critical to keeping not only our animal populations healthy, but also to ensuring we can proactively address zoonotic diseases that have important public health impact as well.”

About Morris Animal Foundation

Morris Animal Foundation is a global leader in funding scientific studies that advance the health of companion animals, horses and wildlife. Since its founding in 1948, the Foundation has invested more than $103 million toward 2,500+ studies that have led to significant breakthroughs in diagnostics, treatments, preventions and cures to benefit animals worldwide. Learn more at Morris Animal Foundation.