South African Racing Loses to Equine Flu

The 1986 equine influenza outbreak in South Africa virtually halted racing in some parts of the country. Last month, equine flu again reared its ugly and contagious head, causing cancellation of races at several top tracks and forcing quarantine of horses suspected of being exposed to the virus. The flu affected six stabling/training complexes and approximately 3,000 horses, according to Rob de Kock, CEO, The Jockey Club of Southern Africa. He noted, "We are unable to quantify losses with any degree of accuracy at this stage. An investigation with regard to the origin was implemented the third week of January.

"In the worst affected areas, i.e., the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, we expect to start racing again on Feb. 7 and Jan. 23, respectively," said de Kock. Flu has postponed the country's national yearling sales, formerly scheduled for mid-March and now set for April 30.

Veterinary officials originally surmised that the flu arrived on a horse imported from America, France, or England; the virus was confirmed as American Lineage H3N8. Thomas Chambers, PhD, professor of virology at the University of Kentucky's Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center in Lexington, added that, "the so-called ‘American Lineage’ virus strains were originally confined to North America, but for the past 10 years have also been present in Europe--including the United Kingdom and Scandinavia--as well as South America."

Incubation of the virus is usually five days, and it took horses that long before exhibiting symptoms, according to South African officials. Horses' symptoms mimic flu in humans, including high fever, coughing, malaise, and nasal discharge. Horses can also suffer secondary infection. Symptoms are similar to those of herpes rhinopneumonitis.

Chambers oversees a reference lab for the Office of International Epizootic Diseases (OIE). "The flu is endemic and has been in the United States a long time. The year 2002 was moderately busy, while last year saw relatively few isolated cases," he said. "The vaccination may not completely protect a horse, but it does reduce severity."

Chambers said swabbing and blood tests are the two most frequently used methods of diagnosis. "Flu vaccinations in South Africa are seldom done, but vaccines are readily available here. Horse owners should check with their veterinarians about their horses’ vaccination status." 

The South Africa's Jockey Club required compulsory vaccinations until 2001; the U. S. requirement for compulsory shots ended in 1991.

"I have little doubt that the Board of The Jockey Club will within the next few weeks--and after consultation with the major industry stockholders--reintroduce this requirement," says de Kock.

Effective quarantine protocols can go a long way toward preventing a catastrophic outbreak, said Chambers. "Utilizing good quarantine procedures for imported animals makes it easier to quickly spot an affected horse," he explained. "If a horse comes in coughing, or starts coughing or showing disease signs while it's still in quarantine, it ought to be fairly simple to identify the problem and isolate it."

About the Author

Stephanie Stephens

Stephanie Stephens is a USEF Media Award winner and American Horse Publications award winner whose work appears in major consumer magazines worldwide. She lives in Southern Calif., but she splits her time between New Zealand and the United States.

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