Quarantine Protocol Under Fire in Australian Flu Inquiry

Three months after Australia's first-ever outbreak of equine influenza, an independent inquiry into the history and management of the outbreak is uncovering troubling flaws in the government's quarantine procedures, according to recently published inquiry transcripts.

Ignored warnings, procrastinated meetings, absent work instructions, and a lack of managerial responsibility were only some of the problems leading up to the epidemic, as is being revealed through the ongoing inquiry, which opened Nov. 13.

Led by retired High Court Justice Ian Callinan, the inquiry staff have conducted interviews with 250 people and collected more than 30,000 documents in preparation for the hearings. Since last Tuesday, Callinan has interrogated leaders from the government-run Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) and the Eastern Creek quarantine center. The index case, a stallion imported from Ireland, tested positive at Eastern Creek 10 days after his arrival in Australia.

The virus infected 40,000 horses in the first nine weeks of the outbreak.

AQIS executive manager Jennifer Gordon conceded when testifying that she ignored warnings from senior New South Wales veterinarian Phillip Widders, BSc, BVSc, PhD. In 2003 Widders told her about the quarantine procedures he considered vital to reducing the risks of a flu outbreak, including requiring all personnel to shower and change clothes following contact with imported horses. Although much talk was made of setting up a meeting with Widders, no meeting ever occurred, according to the recorded testimony.

AQIS national manager David Ironside, in charge of live animal imports and post-arrival quarantines, admitted not following up on requests for work instructions from the Eastern Creek station manager. Although he sent a copy by e-mail, Ironside explained that he never verified that these instructions were received nor being respected.

"I had no reason to believe that the procedures were not being followed," he said during the hearings, adding that he felt it was not his responsibility to find out if they were.

James Gilkerson, BVSc, BSc(Vet) Hons, PhD, the inquiry's first expert witness, testified that, given the five-day incubation period of the virus, the Irish stallion could not have arrived with the disease but would have acquired it during quarantine.

"If adequate procedures were followed, the disease would have stayed in the quarantine center," Gilkerson said.

Eradicating the disease is not impossible, although it will require ongoing, thorough surveillance over a period of a few years, according to Tom Chambers, PhD, head of the OIE international influenza reference laboratory at the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center in Lexington.

"They're taking every intelligent course of action to minimize the risk," Chambers said. "But as long as Australia is a part of the international horse network, it's not going to be zero risk."

Equine influenza is a highly contagious respiratory disease which has a low mortality rate. Vaccinations can help reduce clinical signs and morbidity but do not necessarily prevent the disease.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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