Australia Flu Inquiry Leaders Searching for Quarantine, Outbreak Link

Investigations into the chain of events leading to the ongoing equine flu influenza outbreak in Australia have now entered their fifth month in the New South Wales (NSW) capital city of Sydney.

Recent testimony continues to reveal questionable biosecurity practices from both quarantine centers and private equine professionals, according to published transcripts of the hearings, led by Commissioner Ian Callinan. The retired High Court Justice has also made a plea for the owner of an as-yet-unidentified horse to come forward. The horse is suspected to have brought the virus to the Australian show circuit at the Maitland, NSW, competition last August. Numerous witnesses from the weekend event have testified that they saw or heard a participating horse coughing.

"It is likely that (the owner) now recognizes that that horse is of some significance," said John Agius, SC, counsel representing the state of NSW, during a December hearing. He assured protection from civil and criminal proceedings for the owner should he or she choose to speak.

Callinan added that he would even "be prepared to entertain anonymous submissions of evidence" about this potentially critical link between the quarantine station and the domestic horse population.

Australian horse owners and handlers have also been interrogated by the commission, which resumed hearings Jan. 24 after a five-week holiday hiatus.

When questioned about respecting notification requirements, riding instructor Norman Hindmarsh described the consequences of being under quarantine in the early stages of the outbreak as being "stressful and harmful" to his business and family.

Statements from personnel of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) have brought seven year-old quarantine problems to surface. Ainslie Brown, DVM, senior veterinary officer with the AQIS, stated that concerns about too many horse handlers in quarantine areas have been raised since 2001, and that health forms bearing changes made with correction fluid had been routinely accepted.

"These documents aren't prepared to be put just away in some file somewhere," Callinan said during the Feb. 1 hearing. "They're prepared for the purpose of examining them to make sure that things have been done in accordance with prudent practice and legal requirements."

"I agree," Brown responded. "It should have been checked."

The ongoing inquiry might appear to be evolving into a legal battle but still provides biosecurity benefits as well, 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.

"If they're counting on a paper trail and that paper trail has been manipulated, and they were depending on the accuracy of that, then they can probably take some steps to tighten that up as well," he said.

For more on the inquiry see Quarantine Protocol Under Fire in Australian Flu Inquiry.

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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