Link Between Equine Disease Outbreak and Psychological Distress Found

During the outbreak of equine influenza that occurred in Australia in 2007, mental health researchers identified extremely high levels of psychological distress in horse owners and other people involved in the equine industry.

According to Melanie Taylor, PhD, an occupational psychologist and senior research fellow at the University of Western Sydney's School of Medicine, "Previous studies have identified poor psychological morbidity, grief, depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic distress in farmers and farming families after outbreaks of such diseases as foot and mouth and Ovine Johne's (a chronic wasting disease of sheep)."

Considering that an estimated 9,000 properties and almost 50,000 horses were affected by influenza outbreak in Australia, Taylor and colleagues set out to assess the impact of the influenza outbreak on social and emotional health and well-being on people affected by the outbreak.

Horse owners and individuals involved in the equine industry were electronically sent a questionnaire via the national Horse Emergency Contact Database (HECD), a system employed to contact and inform horse owners during emergencies.

Of the approximate 8,000 HECD registrants contacted, 2,760 horse people participated in the study returning completed surveys to the researchers by January 7, 2008 (week 21 of the outbreak).

"The survey included 166 questions and 10 of these were used to measure non-specific psychological distress measured by the Kessler 10 (K10) method--a well-established and validated measure of distress," explained Taylor.

According to the authors, 34% of respondents reported high psychological distress (K10 levels >22), which are usually only reported in approximately 12% of the general Australian population.

Younger people, those with lower levels of formal education, and people whose primary source of income came from the equine industry were more likely to have high psychological distress.

"In addition, individuals residing in the high risk infection zones (the red zones) and the buffer (amber zones) were 2.00 and 1.83 times as likely to experience high psychological distress than people living in unaffected (white) zones," reported Taylor.

Nonetheless, psychological distress was identified on a national basis and was not simply limited to geographical regions affected by the influenza outbreak.

"This is the first study to determine the psychological impact of a disease outbreak while it was still occurring," relayed Taylor. "While we collected a meaningful amount of data, the results of this study have generated a number of additional questions that will require further assessment."

Taylor will be conducting a smaller follow-up study (one year after the first study) to re-assess levels of psychological distress to identify factors that promote or hinder recovery.

The study, "Factor's influencing psychological distress during a disease epidemic: Data from Australia's first outbreak of equine influenza," was published in October 2008 in the journal BMC Public Health.

About the Author

Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she's worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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