VHS: The Anatomy of an Emerging Virus
Coastlines, Fall 2007

In a late Summer 2007 interview with New York Sea Grant's Barbara A. Branca, Dr. Paul Bowser, Professor of Aquatic Animal Medicine at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, discuss a disease of immediate urgency in the Great Lakes -- a disease known as VHS, viral hemorrhagic septicemia.

Q: Dr. Bowser, what is this virus and does the name refer to its effect on fish?

A: VHS is a rhabdovirus–a bullet-shaped RNA virus–one that’s adapted to cold blooded animals, particularly fish. It is not a threat to human health in any way. The name describes what it does–VHSV creates hemorrhages. The virus destroys the cells that line various blood vessels in the fish and causes bleeding. Bleeding destroys internal organs, such as the heart, liver, spleen and kidneys, and eventually the fish dies.


Q: Which fish species seem to be most affected and how does the virus manifest itself?

A: We’ve seen significant mortality events occur in several species: muskellunge [a kind of pike], round gobies, gizzard shad, smallmouth bass and freshwater drum. Sometimes I’m asked the question, “How bad can it get?” Well, although not everything happens to this degree, the graphic description of the freshwater drum kill that occurred last year on the shores of Lake Erie says it all. There were windrows of fish covering the length of the beach, piled up about 10 feet wide and 4 feet tall. That was an unusual event and it was probably due to a combination of the fish being particularly susceptible to the virus and maybe some other environmental stressors, possibly high temperatures. We don’t always see the situation being that serious or severe, but there is potential.

For more of this Q&A, check out the full article, which you can download in the "Related Info" column on this page.

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