UK Prepares for Possible African Horse Sickness Shift

Attendees at the UK's National Equine Forum yesterday heard about the progress made thus far by a working group focused on African horse sickness (AHS).

Rt Hon Jane Kennedy, MP, the Minister for the Horse wrote the speech presented by Arik Dondi, deputy director of Exotic Diseases Policy at the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra), as Kennedy was unable to attend.

The AHS Working Group, which was founded and is led by Buckinghamshire charity The Horse Trust, brings together the government, scientists, and the horse industry to work on an action plan for tackling the illness if it reaches Northern Europe.

AHS kills around 90% of infected horses. The disease is largely confined to Africa, but there is risk that the disease could spread to Northern Europe, including Britain.

Dondi spoke about the work of the AHS Working Group, including how the group has worked with Defra to produce leaflets with information on recognizing the symptoms of AHS, and how to control the insects that transmit the virus.

A European vaccine bank has been established, encompassing a stockpile of 100,000 doses for each of the nine strains of AHS.

The current vaccine has limitations, but an improved vaccine is in development. This could be available within two years.

The Working Group plans to publish a strategy document detailing the measures that will need to be taken to control an outbreak of AHS. The document will include information on how the movement restrictions following an AHS outbreak could impact the horse industry, including the impact on horse racing, eventing, agriculture, and private horse owners.

"I am delighted with the progress made so far by the African horse sickness Working Group," said Paul Jepson, Chief Executive and Veterinary Director of The Horse Trust, and chair of the AHS Working Group. "The vaccine stockpiles are a vital step forward that will allow European governments to rapidly respond to an outbreak and limit the spread of this horrific disease."

The Horse Trust approached Defra about setting up an AHS working group two years ago, after the bluetongue virus, which primarily affects sheep, spread from Africa to Northern Europe. Since the founding of the AHS Working Group in 2007, there have been outbreaks of the bluetongue virus in the UK also.

"People had said that bluetongue would never reach Northern Europe, but once it did, we knew there was a risk that the same could happen with African horse sickness. At the time, no plans had been made on how to tackle an outbreak of African horse sickness, which would have made it difficult for the government and horse industry to respond effectively," Jepson said.

Read more about African horse sickness on, or download The Horse Trust leaflet on the topic.

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