Sunday, March 17, 2013

The War on Distemper Saved Lives

Nothing has killed more dogs than distemper, and the cure for this dreaded disease was found thanks to The Field magazine and a partnership between hounds, ferrets, fox, and scientists. And yes, there was even a financal contribution from the Kennel Clubs!

The first key date in the history is 1905 when the viral cause of distemper was first described by H. Carre in France.

In 1923, "The Field Distemper Fund" was set up by The Field magazine, the largest field sports publication in the U.K., after distemper swept through several hunt kennels devastating a large number of young dogs.

Of course, distemper was not just a hound man's nightmare -- it was also a dog show nightmare as dog shows were a major vector of distemper transmission, with dogs from all across a country coming together, often with puppies for sale in tow. A single infected dog, in such a circumstamce, could spread the disease to 50 breeds and 500 dogs, and often did. 

The Dog Fancier magazine, published in Battle Creek Michigan in 1923, detailed both the creation of the Distemper Fund by The Field and the fox hunting Duke of Beaufort, and the subsequent appeal for funds to the Biritsh and American Kennel Clubs.

The notice from the American Kennel Club appeared in the same edition.

In 1926, Laidlow and Dunkin published an account of the successful use of a distemper vaccine in ferrets. They announce that the response of ferrets to distemper infection was "comparable" to distemper infection in dogs.

In 1928, preparation of dog distemper vaccine was undertaken on a small commercial scale by Wellcome Burroughs. Dogs were inoculated, observed, killed, and then autopsied to ascertain how their immune system was responding.

During this period it came to light that the canine and ferret versions of distemper were not quite the same, and that a vaccine that worked for ferrets would not necessarily work on dogs, nor would a vaccine that worked on some dogs work on all dogs.

In 1935, R.C. Green conceived the idea that if distemper was repeatedly passed through ferrets it might become modified or altered to such a degree as to become avirulent to dogs and foxes (i.e. so weak or changed that could not infect dogs and fox with distemper).

Green and Carlson took the Laidlow and Dunkin strain of ferret distemper virus, and passed it from ferret populations to ferret populations. By the 39th passage, Green had evidence of attenuated virulency for foxes -- i.e. the strain was so weak that it would not kill fox, but it would provide the fox with immunity. After 50 passages through ferrets, a virus was obtained which caused only "a slight malaise" in dogs.

In 1939, Green claimed that his improved ferret-adapted strain of virus could be used to immunize healthy dogs and fur-farm foxes against distemper. Green's vaccine was not always effective however (perhaps due to quality control problems in the labs), and some folks argued that there were several strains of distemper.

World War II stopped all research into distemper, but after the War ended, improved culturing methods enabled even more attentuated strains of the distemper virus to be created, and by the early 1950s distemper vaccine was available on the market.

Today, canine distemper vaccine is cheap and easy to get. Most people can no longer remember that whole litters of dogs once perished from this mysterious and fatal disease.

Today, anyone in the world who has a dog owes a debt to British fox hunters and fox hounds.

If fox hunters and houndsmen had not initiated "The Field Distemper Fund," it would have been many more decades before a distemper vaccine was every created.

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