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Vaccination clinic on Amish farm for horses scheduled in Heuvelton

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A state senator and a local veterinarian are hoping to battle a brain virus that could wreak havoc on an unusual and difficult to reach patient group: horses that belong to Amish families.

Dr. John P. “Jack” Zeh will hold a free vaccination clinic for horses from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday on an Amish farm in Heuvelton to help area horse owners prevent eastern equine encephalitis in their animals. While the clinic is open to any horse owner, it’s geared specifically toward Amish families, who experts say don’t vaccinate their animals as often as non-Amish families because of financial and cultural barriers.

“Most Amish have a lot of horses,” Dr. Zeh said.“To vaccinate all your horses, that’s a big expense.”

The clinic will take place at the Jonas Hershberger farm. The Hershbergers live at 210 Irish Settlement Road.

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, helped secure a state grant that will subsidize the vaccinations.

Horses and humans are susceptible to the virus, which is often fatal. EEE killed 12 horses in New York last year, half of which belonged to Amish families, Mrs. Ritchie said. The disease also killed a 4-year-old girl in Oswego County.

“From that point on, I tried to find the best way possible to deal with the situation, or help in any way that I could,” Mrs. Ritchie said.“There wasn’t a lot of answers out there.”

Humans can’t contract EEE directly from horses. But mosquitoes can bite horses that are carriers of the disease and then bite humans, Mrs. Ritchie said.

“We want to make sure that the horses are vaccinated so they’re not carriers of the virus, so when a mosquito bites a horse, it’s not infected and it’s not able to carry it to a human,” she said.

While there’s a vaccination to prevent horses from getting EEE, there is no vaccination to protect humans, Mrs. Ritchie said. A bill in the state Senate would help fund research into a human vaccine against EEE and other viruses.

The Ritchie office is making overtures to the Amish community in the area, which numbers roughly 12,000 and growing in New York state. The Amish seek separation from the outside world on religious grounds, and shun many modern technologies as well as ostentatious colors that would set them apart.

Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, a SUNY Potsdam anthropology professor and noted expert on the Amish, said that there are several Amish sects in the north country, and each might have a different reception to the idea of vaccinating animals. A recent debate in an Amish publication about vaccinating humans, for example, provoked a wide variety of responses from the Amish community, she said.

“Some may not be doing it because they think it will put faith in a man-made product rather than in God, but many are not doing it for all sorts of reasons,” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said.“It’s really hard to say.”

Cost could play a part, too, she said. While non-Amish farmers use tractors to plow fields and pickups to get into town, Amish farmers use horses for much of the work on the farm and for transportation.

She said she thought many Amish would be receptive to the vaccination clinic, but couldn’t speak for all of them.

“The Amish are first to say, ‘We’re all human. We’re like you,’” Ms. Johnson-Weiner said. “Some do things, some don’t do things.”

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