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OBX wild horses threatened by ‘swamp cancer’ after deaths in Virginia, caretakers say

Seven wild ponies on the Virginia coast have had to be put down in recent months after they contracted “swamp cancer,” a deadly fungus-life disease, according to CNN. The outbreak has people worried about the wild horse populations on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

“Are the horses here in Corolla at risk? The short answer is yes, they are. Pythiosis is a deadly organism that can be found in stagnant water, in areas where there is not a hard freeze during the winter,” the Carolla Wild Horse Fund wrote on Facebook this week. Pythiosis is the proper name for what is commonly called “swamp cancer.”

Horses can contract the disease from stagnant or standing water, explains the journal Today’s Veterinary Nurse. “Animals become infected when (the organism) finds its way into small scratches or wounds or when they inhale or ingest spores,” the magazine notes.

“It’s most often seen along the Gulf Coast, but the warmer winters and increased precipitation we’ve experienced in recent years has increased the risk of a Pythiosis outbreak in North Carolina. It’s rare, but not inconceivable that we could see an outbreak here,” the Carolla Wild Horses Fund said in its Facebook post.

On Virginia’s Chincoteague Island the fungus-like disease, which looks like sesame seeds, causes lesions on the horse’s legs, The Washington Post reported in November. “Success rates for treating the illness are higher if it is caught early,” The Post said.

At the end of the year, a volunteer who helps with the horses in Virginia wrote on Facebook: “After much consultation and much professional vet medical opinions, a decision was made to humanely euthanize the last four remaining ponies fighting this awful, awful fungus.”

On the Outer Banks, volunteers and the Wild Horse Fund staff who help care for the horses say they will be encouraging people to help clean up the area to reduce the rick the horses get scratches or other wounds the pathogen could infect.

“We will also be distributing examples of what to look for in case of an outbreak (like pictures of Pythiosis lesions) and ask people to call and report any horse they see with open cuts and scrapes, or suspicious wounds,” the organization wrote on Facebook.

Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.