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Immunity against Lagovirus europaeus and the Impact of the Immunological Studies on Vaccination

In the early 1980s, a highly contagious viral hemorrhagic fever in rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) emerged, causing a very high rate of mortality in these animals. Since the initial occurrence of the rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV), several hundred million rabbits have died after infection. The emergence of genetically-different virus variants (RHDV GI.1 and GI.2) indicated the very high variability of RHDV. Moreover, with these variants, the host range broadened to hare species (Lepus). The circulation of RHDV genotypes displays different virulences and a limited induction of cross-protective immunity. Interestingly, juvenile rabbits (<9 weeks of age) with an immature immune system display a general resistance to RHDV GI.1, and a limited resistance to RHDV GI.2 strains, whereas less than 3% of adult rabbits survive an infection by either RHDV GI.1. or GI.2. Several not-yet fully understood phenomena characterize the RHD. A very low infection dose followed by an extremely rapid viral replication could be simplified to the induction of a disseminated intravascular coagulopathy (DIC), a severe loss of lymphocytes—especially T-cells—and death within 36 to 72 h post infection. On the other hand, in animals surviving the infection or after vaccination, very high titers of RHDV-neutralizing antibodies were induced. Several studies have been conducted in order to deepen the knowledge about the virus’ genetics, epidemiology, RHDV-induced pathology, and the anti-RHDV immune responses of rabbits in order to understand the phenomenon of the juvenile resistance to this virus. Moreover, several approaches have been used to produce efficient vaccines in order to prevent an infection with RHDV. In this review, we discuss the current knowledge about anti-RHDV resistance and immunity, RHDV vaccination, and the further need to establish rationally-based RHDV vaccines.

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