08/28/2003 11:00PM

Vaccine series best weapon against West Nile

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - With the arrival of peak mosquito season, veterinarians are keeping an eye on Kentucky's horse population for signs of West Nile virus. The mosquito-borne disease, which has infected 1,442 people and killed 21 nationwide this year, also has affected 22 horses and caused the deaths of nine in Kentucky. The number of equine cases may climb in September, traditionally the peak month for cases.

Hoping to prevent an infection boom in the equine population, veterinarians now recommend that horsemen vaccinate their animals more often to maximize protection.

Last year, when Fort Dodge Animal Health began selling its equine West Nile vaccine, many veterinarians gave two initial doses, followed up by booster shots. This year, the general consensus is that horses should have a three-dose initial series, then boosters every six months - especially during prime mosquito season, from about June until about October. The changing advice reflects the fact that veterinarians are still developing their understanding of West Nile.

"I don't think anyone is completely sure of what to do, and there isn't a single uniform response to West Nile," said Dr. Tom Seahorn of the Hagyard Davidson McGee clinic in Lexington. "Generally, people are recommending the three-dose initial vaccine, followed with the booster every six months. You should try to get a vaccine in about a month before mosquito season starts, which means vaccinating in April or May."

But Seahorn cautions that veterinary advice can vary according to such factors as the horse's age and situation.

Rumors of abortion have caused some concern among breeders that the vaccine would cause problems for their pregnant mares. But the rumors, Seahorn said, are unfounded, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued a statement in support of vaccination.

"In my personal experience, we've had some mares that even had the disease and didn't abort," Seahorn said. "The bottom line is that we recommend vaccinating.

"Disease can occur in a vaccinated animal," he added, "but their chance of survival and the recovery time can be improved."

There may be new hope for horses already infected with the virus. Novartis recently got USDA approval for its West Nile virus antibody, which the company suggests for use in infected animals, whether or not they have been vaccinated.

"Human literature suggests it may be beneficial," Seahorn said. "The claim is that it assists in recovery. But the key is rapid diagnosis of West Nile."

In any event, Seahorn reiterated, "The most important thing is to vaccinate."

Crestfield's Courtney to be honored

The Thoroughbred Club of America has named Crestfield Farm owner Robert Courtney Sr. as the honored guest at its 72nd annual testimonial dinner Nov. 1 at Keeneland.

Courtney has been a fixture in Lexington's Thoroughbred breeding and sales community for decades. Born in 1921 as the son of Keeneland's founding treasurer, Lexington banker W. H. Courtney, he studied agriculture at the University of Kentucky and bought his first mare in 1941.

But his most notable purchase came nearly 30 years later, when he acquired Hasty Queen II for just $11,000 at the 1972 Keeneland January sale. The mare went on to produce six stakes winners, including Fit to Fight, for Courtney and his partner, Robert Congleton. The prolific mare was named broodmare of the year in 1984, the year that Fit to Fight swept the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn handicaps.

More recently, Courtney bred the popular Grade 2 winner Dollar Bill.

Educational fund announces scholarships

The Horse Farm Workers' Educational Assistance Fund announced this week that it has awarded a record 46 scholarships this year. Most went to the children of full-time horse-farm workers in central Kentucky, though one also went to a farm employee wishing to further his education in equine studies at Auburn University.

Since the fund's inception in 1996, it has provided 208 scholarships averaging almost $2,000 each, according to its volunteer president, Rob Whiteley, who also is director of operations at Foxfield.

"We want to make a difference in the quality of their education, and we want to make it possible for them to succeed," said Whiteley. "In some cases, the recipients would not even be able to enroll without our support."