The number of free-living European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in the Netherlands has declined dramatically in recent years. Although rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) infection has been implicated as a possible cause of this decline, the definitive diagnosis has not been reported. We examined three free-living rabbits found dead in the Netherlands in 2004 by use of gross pathology, histopathology, immunohistochemistry, and reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction. We subsequently compared the identified virus with RHDV from elsewhere in the world by phylogenetic analysis. There was widespread necrosis, hemorrhage, or both in liver, kidney, spleen, and lungs of all three rabbits, consistent with RHDV infection. The presence of RHDV in affected tissues was demonstrated by immunohistochemistry and reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction. The RHDV from the Netherlands showed the highest identity, 99%, with a strain from France in 2000, and fitted in genogroup G5. These results prove that RHDV infection causes mortality of free-living rabbits in the Netherlands and suggest that RHDV strains circulating in free-living rabbits in the Netherlands and France have a common source or that one has originated from the other.
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Vol. 42 • No. 4