Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore have found that a heightened interest in horses and the compulsion to be around them at all times, is linked to the virus Ecus solidamentum.
“We’ve nicknamed the disease the ‘horse bug’,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Ivan Toride. “But all joking aside, it seems to be a serious affliction that has real repercussions for sufferers.”
The study reports that people infected with Ecus solidamentum lose all rational thought processes when exposed to equines. Sufferers will ignore physical injuries, strained personal relationships and financial troubles just to spend more time with horses. Dr. Toride admits it’s a startling discovery to find a physical cause behind what was once thought to be only a mental affliction.
People generally become infected through mosquito bites, which is why those who already spend time in barns and outdoors with horses seem to be more susceptible. Interestingly, the researchers found infection rates are higher among middle-age women and that they are the most symptomatic when infected. Teenage girls also have a high susceptibility to the virus, but the disease seems to resolve itself in many by the time the girls reach their 20s.
“It’s a multi-faceted disease that will require much more investigation,” says Dr. Toride. “We still don’t understand the exact viral mechanism that affects the brain’s functioning, or why women in particular seem to be more susceptible.”
Anita Notherpony, who was infected with Ecus solidamentum last year, participated in Dr. Toride’s study. In the last 12 months, her behaviour around horses has become more erratic as the virus has spread through her body. “I lost my job because I couldn’t stay away from the barn. When I did go to work, all I did was read articles about horses or look at horses for sale,” she says.
“It started slowly, I thought it was just a new interest at first. But when I spent my entire pay check at the tack store, I began to suspect there was something deeper was at play.”
When Notherpony read about Dr. Toride’s research in an article in a horse magazine, a lightbulb went off. “I just said, ‘this is me.’”
Notherpony immediately contacted the research team for help. “Dr. Toride diagnosed me. At least I now have an explanation for what is happening. I know this disease is ruining my life, but it’s a compulsion I can’t control. I just hope they find a cure.”
Recently, Notherpony secretly sold her husband’s car for a third horse. At the time of this writing, it was unclear if her husband would be able to continue his employment without a way to get to work, leaving them both in a precarious financial situation.
Betraying the seriousness of her disease, a rapidly deteriorating Notherpony didn’t seem to be able to grasp the severity of the situation during an interview with Horse Network. “He’ll just have to find some other way to get to work. I need to buy another saddle next week,” she said.
It’s situations like these that are pushing Dr. Toride and his team to work overtime to find a cure for Ecus solidamentum. “It’s frightening to see how this disease can affect a mind. We can only hope we stumble across a cure soon,” he says.