Australian Flu Cases Contained to Movement-Restricted Areas

The president of Equine Veterinarians Australia painted a picture of cautious optimism today at the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland, that equine influenza--even while it continues to be detected on new premises--appears to have been contained to the equine movement-restricted areas of New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland. James Gilkerson, BVSc, BSc(Vet) Hons, PhD, also told The Horse that the outbreak could likely have long-term negative effects on Australia's horse industry, and he hopes the government is able to support the horsemen through this time of hardship.

Gilkerson, who is also the head of the infectious disease laboratory and senior lecturer in veterinary microbiology at the University of Melbourne, expressed to delegates his hopes that continued quarantine vigilance and possible vaccination measures will prevent the virus from spreading to more of the area's dense equine population.

According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, as of yesterday evening (Sept. 14) there were 841 infected properties with a total of 8,353 horses; 357 are considered "dangerous contact properties" with 2,731 horses; and 257 suspect properties contain 1,809 horses. "New infections have shown up in places that were expected, either found through tracing or caused by lateral spread to nearby properties," the NSW report stated.

Many of the delegates at the BEVA Congress this week have approached Gilkerson and asked about the outbreak situation. Today during a session on respiratory diseases, he gave a short review of the outbreak to delegates, reminding them that less that 5% of the estimated 170,000 horses in NSW have tested positive for influenza.

Gilkerson told The Horse the main difficulty in the wake of the influenza confirmation was communicating the message of controlling the movement of horses to the general horse-owning public. "It was easy to get the information out to the Thoroughbred guys and the harness racing groups, because we just had to halt racing," he said. "It's telling mum and dad and (those participating in) pony club and the ranchmen, who were thinking, ‘This doesn't affect me,' that was difficult."

For owners of mares kept on farms with the stallions to whom the horses are booked, it's business as usual, said Gilkerson, but for satellite mare farms that would typically send mares in to be bred, the situation is frustrating for both the horsemen and the horses. "The farms have stallions looking longingly over the fence at mares on the next farm, and mares looking longingly over at the stallions, and nothing happens between them," he said, presenting probably the only lighthearted representation of the situation portrayed in recent days. "They're (the owners) are desperately trying to find ways to get mares to the stallions."

Gilkerson said the decision on whether to vaccinate the horses will be made in the next few days, and he expects horses within the restricted area will be vaccinated first. Authorities are currently working through the details of getting vaccines imported from countries where they are readily available. As for introducing influenza antibodies via vaccination to a horse population that was up until a few weeks ago completely naïve to the disease, he said this is not a major concern. "I think the economic and social consequences of not vaccinating strategically outweigh the difficulties in subsequently assuring the country was completely free from influenza," he explained.

In the meantime, the movement restrictions and curtailed racing and breeding seasons have cost the horsemen an unimaginable amount of money and concern. "In general, the horse industry in Australia is hurting," admitted Gilkerson. "Our government is doing, I think, what it can to assist them. Hopefully it will go back to normal, but still everything needs to be pulled together and there needs to be a coordinated industry response.

"This situation brings home how important our quarantine requirements are for all of our livestock industries, not just horses," he continued. "I think we need to find out what went wrong and fix it. Equine influenza is terrible, but foot and mouth disease and a lot of these other diseases would be even more devastating.

"The downstream of this is that it will affect us for years," he said. "There will be fewer yearlings, then fewer 2-year-olds … the effects are a bit deeper than one might imagine."

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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