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Want to avoid West Nile virus? Remember to vaccinate your horses

SALT LAKE CITY — Looking for ways to protect yourself from the West Nile virus this summer? Don't forget to vaccinate your horses, state officials say.

"If you’ve got horses affected, people are at risk, too," said Robert Erickson, a field veterinarian with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

The department sent out a news release Sunday reminding horse owners to check with their veterinarians and make sure their horses' vaccinations are current.

Nearly 80 percent of West Nile cases in horses occur in August and September, the release stated. In addition, 1 in 3 horses dies after showing signs of the illness.

"There’s just is no specific treatment for the virus. The best is prevention with vaccines and good mosquito control," Erickson said.

The equine vaccination requires two doses and takes approximately five weeks to offer protection from the disease. Once vaccinated, yearly booster shots are necessary.

West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes that transmit the illness from migrating birds to susceptible victims like horses or humans, Erickson said. Small puddles of water in troughs, buckets or tires are breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes.

The department recommends regularly dumping out pet dishes, flower pots, wading pools, tarps and bird baths to keep the mosquito population at bay.

"Those are the two biggest things, protecting yourself by wearing long sleeves and mosquito repellant, and getting rid of those mosquitoes around your home," said Dallin Peterson, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.

Eight pools of mosquitoes carrying the virus were found earlier this month in various parts of Salt Lake, Box Elder and Uinta counties, according to a Utah Department of Health weekly report.

Around the same time last year, the department reported 15 areas of infected mosquitos around the state.

"They don't travel very far from where they hatch," Peterson said. "If you have a lot of mosquitoes, they're coming from somewhere pretty close nearby."

In 2016, there were 13 human cases of West Nile in Utah, according to the health department. No human cases of West Nile virus have been reported so far this year.

For horses, West Nile virus affects the central nervous system, sometimes causing inflammation in the brain. The most common sign in horses is weakness, generally in the hindquarters. A widened stance, stumbling, leaning to one side and toe dragging are signs of weaknesses. Depression, fearfulness and fever are also symptoms, and in extreme cases, paralysis may follow.

State veterinarian Barry Pittman said symptom severity depends on the individual horse.

"The immune system is going to fight it, but with vaccinations on board, there's anibodies that will help (the horses) through it if they do get it," Pittman said.

Other factors, including the animal's age, location and lifestyle, can also affect the severity of the illness, he said.

Horse owners put off vaccinating their horses for a number of reasons, Pittman said, from procrastination to cost.

"A lot of folks just like to own horses, and they don't always start out with a veterinarian. They don't go find one that will work on horses," he said. "It's a combination of expense and inconvenience."

Owners can buy mosquito repellant or virus vaccinations from farm supply stores or equine veterinarian clinics. Anyone who suspects their animals have West Nile should contact their veterinarian immediately.