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Monday EI Update

There were fears over the weekend that some races horses at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney had contracted equine influenza, but fortunately they have tested negative for the disease. However, there are still at least 60 horses known to be affected, and racing is cancelled in New South Wales and Queensland until next week at the earliest; there is also an indefinite ban on the movement of horses within the state. Even the prime minister has weighed in on the situation — can you imagine that happening in US politics? From ABC News:

Prime Minister John Howard has told Sky News the Federal Government is doing all it can to deal with the crisis.

“It’s just a reminder of how absolutely precious of how things relating to quarantine really are, but certainly Mr McGauran [Peter McGauran, Australia’s Agriculture Minister] is working very closely with his state colleagues and the industry to minimise the impact of what is a very serious outbreak,” Mr Howard said.

The problem is being felt beyond racing as well now — the Sydney International three-day event has been cancelled which creates a headache for Olympic qualifying. The worries over the delay of the breeding season continue:

“If the breeding season is delayed for any length of time it will have a devastating effect on the foal crop which will translate to the yearling sales.

“It will affect racing for at least two to three years.”

The horses at Eastern Creek and those in quarantine at Spotswood in Melbourne will be isolated for another month.

Mr Messara said shuttle stallions were responsible for around 20 per cent of the foal crop.

“The breeding season can be extended to January but the foals would be backward in comparison to those born earlier and that would have a flow-on to racing for at least two years,” Mr Messara [president of Thoroughbred Breeders Australia] said.

Again, I question the wisdom of shuttling stallions between hemispheres for many reasons, but it seems a situation like this should act as a wake-up call that if the practice is to continue, more stringent guidelines must be applied in order to protect the horses’ health and safety as well as economic realities. As to the origin of the outbreak, it seems that the link with the recent Japanese outbreak is the simple answer:

There is little doubt the virus, which has never been in Australia, was brought into the country two weeks ago via several stallions that had been in Japan for the breeding season.

Those horses include Australia’s best and most expensive stallion, Encosta De Lago. Japanese racing has just resumed following a three-week shutdown after an outbreak of the virus.

It was the first time since World War II there was such widespread blackout of Saturday racing in Australia.

However, the virus found in Japan was rather unexpected as well — it seems this particular strain has never been found in Japan before, and they have not had a case on record for 35 years. There continues to be talk of moving the Sydney and Melbourne racing carnivals, depending on how things unfold.

At present, Australian horses are not routinely vaccinated against equine influenza as they are in much of the rest of the world, although that may now change:

The outbreak, now confirmed in two states, also raises questions about the effectiveness of current quarantine procedures.

Veterinary virologist Professor Graham Wilcox, of Murdoch University in Western Australia, says he is not surprised equine influenza has come to Australia.

He says once regulations allowed breeding stallions and racehorses to be imported from countries where equine influenza is endemic, it means an outbreak is “inevitable”.

“Whether it takes one week, one year or 10 years the chances are [an outbreak] will happen,” Wilcox says.

It seems clear that while quarantine is a good first step, more careful measures are required in an era of major international competition and with stallions routinely flying between hemispheres for breeding; it’s an ideal system to spread disease without more checks built into the system. One hopes that other countries will take heed of the current situation in Australia to prevent similar outbreaks elsewhere.

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