Sunday, March 14, 2010

Treating Distemper

Many bizarre protocols have emerged over time as we grope for meaningful anti-viral therapy. The fact remains that recovery from distemper is all about immunity and the only real treatment is supportive care while the patient mounts its own immune response. If the patient has pneumonia, antibiotics are used on the secondary bacterial infections. Airway dilators are used as needed. Physical therapy is used to promote cough. If the patient has diarrhea, intravenous fluids are used to prevent dehydration etc.

Distemper is extremely variable in its ability to produce symptoms and recovery occurs at any stage. This has led to assorted therapies being credited with effect when what was more likely witnessed was the natural removal of the infection by the host’s immune system.

Neurologic distemper is particularly difficult to treat. Still, it is possible for dogs to recover with livable deficits even from neurodistemper; euthanasia is best left for progressive, incapacitating neurologic symptoms.

If confirming diagnosis and therapy are the pitfalls of distemper, prevention is the easy part. Effective distemper vaccination has been available since the 1950s. Prior to widespread vaccination, distemper was the scourge of the canine community, wiping out entire townfuls of pet dogs. Today, distemper is a rare disease except in the shelter, rescue, and pet store world.

The “distemper shot” is the basic immunization for dogs. It is generally combined with vaccine for canine parvovirus as well for parainfluenza, adenovirus 2, leptospirosis, and sometimes coronavirus. Puppies are vaccinated beginning at age 6-8 weeks and then every 2 to 4 weeks thereafter until age 16 weeks. The next vaccine is one year later. After that subsequent vaccination boosters are given every 1 to 3 years or based on antibody levels depending on the policy of the supervising animal hospital.
Vaccine is available in the traditional modified live virus format, where distemper virus is modified to induce immune-response but not illness. Vaccine is also available in the recombinant format where a live harmless virus (not the distemper virus at all modified or otherwise) is used to carry the portion of the distemper virus which generates the immune-response. The benefit of the recombinant format is that it is completely impossible for distemper or distemper encephalitis to occur as the result of vaccination. These complications are exceedingly rare but still possible with modified live virus vaccine.

The use of the human measles virus to vaccinate against canine distemper is largely passe nowadays. Immunity obtained this way does not last as long and is not as successful as that obtained with a modified live or recombinant distemper vaccine.
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