Glanders: Are Equine Olympic Athletes at Risk?

Glanders: Are Equine Olympic Athletes at Risk?

According to authorities, the 2016 Olympic Games equestrian venue has received official classification as an “equine disease-free zone,” thanks to stringent sanitary measures.

Photo: Courtesy FEI/Renato Sette Camara/City Hall of Rio de Janeiro

A Wall Street Journal article alerted the American public to glanders’ threat to horses in Brazil just a week before the Rio 2016 Olympic Games opened.

And it’s not just a rumor. Glanders is indeed present—even endemic—in Brazil. But international competitors and their fans can feel reassured: The deadly and contagious equine respiratory disease is not present in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games equestrian venue, said officials involved in organizing the games and monitoring international animal health. According to authorities, the area has received official classification as an “equine disease-free zone,” thanks to stringent sanitary measures.

Brazilian authorities have declared the Olympic Equestrian Venue at Deodoro, the Rio de Janeiro International Airport, and the “virtual corridor” linking the two locations an Equine Disease Free Zone (EDFZ), said a spokesperson for the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI). The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has recognized this disease-free status.

“EDFZs are established in countries where equestrian events are staged but where it is not feasible to eradicate equine diseases in the entire country,” the spokesperson said.

Such a status is part of the OIE initiative to ensure the safety of internationally competing horses even when participating in events in countries where recognized equine diseases are present.

“The OIE provides to its 180 Members Countries guidelines to establish zones and compartments free of diseases on their territory, including zones free from equine diseases,” Monique Éloit, DVM, OIE director general, told The Horse. “The goal of establishing such zones is to ensure that the high health status of competing horses is not compromised in order to allow for their safe return to their home country.

“The Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games take place in this kind of equine disease-free zone, which has specifically been established by the Brazilian authorities for the purpose of hosting the Games,” she continued. “The free status of this zone was agreed upon in 2015 by the OIE on the basis of the information provided by Brazilian authorities, information explaining the establishment of an intensified surveillance for equine diseases and stringent biosecurity measures, including strict control of movements in and out of the zone.”

Specifically, the Deodoro venue was empty of horses as of April 2015. And authorities have had to adhere to specific, stringent biosecurity norms provided by the OIE for the temporary importation of high health status horses for the games. Meanwhile, these international competition horses benefit from a sort of “health bubble” within an otherwise disease-affected country.

“These Zones ensure that visiting horses are protected from disease through the use of strict biosecurity protocols, which include making sure they do not come into contact with any local horses, either directly or indirectly, or other vectors of disease throughout their stay,” the FEI spokesperson said.

“Biosecurity measures are in place at the venue, which include cleaning of all vehicles entering and leaving, and an exception being made for the only other animals on venue—guide and sniffer dogs,” the spokesperson added.

Brazilian authorities have met with some criticism of their management of the disease in preparation for the Olympic Games, with suggestions that their testing methods are insufficient. However, the OIE confirms that the country’s veterinary authorities have adequate equipment and resources and that their testing methods are valid.

“The OIE provides internationally agreed diagnostic laboratory methods for glanders,” Éloit said. “They are described in detail in the OIE Manual of Diagnostic Tests and Vaccines for Terrestrial Animals (Chapter 2.5.11).”

Brazil’s authorities have been carrying out active surveillance for glanders using sequential serological tests (complement fixation test and western blotting), she said.

“The complement fixation test, the ELISA test, and Western blotting are all considered suitable,” Éloit said. “To increase confidence in the serological test’s results, it is the recommendation of the OIE that when the laboratory diagnosis of glanders is based on a serological method, at least two tests should be performed, since these tests show a certain degree of variability and require careful validation.”

The OIE Reference Laboratory for glanders in Germany has been carrying out confirmatory tests, she added. If the Brazilian authorities need assistance, they can refer to one of the OIE’s two reference laboratories for the disease.

“The two OIE Reference Laboratories for glanders (the Friedrich-Loeffer Institute in Germany and the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in the United Arab Emirates) can provide assistance to OIE Member Countries for the laboratory diagnosis of glanders,” she said.

Meanwhile, the health organization recommends that the national laboratories apply a quality assurance system “to ensure the reliability of their work and testing,” she said.

One of the oldest known equine diseases, glanders causes nodular, ulcerating skin and mucous membrane lesions, fever, cough, weakness, depression, and weight loss. While it can affect other animals and even humans, equids are the only known reservoir for the bacteria responsible for the disease, said Ahtasham Khan, PhD, associate professor in epidemiology at the College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Jhang, Pakistan, and researcher with the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut, Federal Research Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Bacterial Infections and Zoonoses, in Jena, Germany.

The disease is endemic in Brazil, Khan said. However, tight biosecurity measures can effectively keep the disease at bay from the disease-free zone.

A validation study of a serological diagnostic assay with high specificity and sensitivity for glanders in equids, funded by the OIE in coordination with the FEI and the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), is underway, said Éloit. The study is part of the combined initiative to facilitate the international movement of competition horses. Researchers expect to reveal the results of that study in 2017.

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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