The recent incidents of Equine Influenza (EI) in racing yards and the wider equine population, which brought about the cancellation of all racing in Britain for almost a week, demonstrated how important biosecurity is in every aspect of looking after not only thoroughbreds but horses of all kinds.
Equine influenza is a very contagious virus and has most serious consequences for young foals and sick or unvaccinated horses. For this reason, everyone involved with rearing or handling thoroughbreds in any form of activity must support the regulatory authorities in their response, which means doing everything possible to contain outbreaks and reduce the risk, while being vigilant at all times where a horse’s health is concerned.
Vaccination on a regular basis is now especially important. However, it has to be borne in mind that although there are fewer strains of influenza than in humans, it takes much longer for them to be incorporated into horse vaccines. Immunity offered by current equine vaccines has been very good overall, and when given in late pregnancy they provide the only way to protect young foals who themselves are too young to be vaccinated.
It is impossible to guard against every disease – especially given the mobility of the racing activity – when horses gather together for races, public sales and other events, but by segregating different groups as much as possible and undertaking good biosecurity, the spread of infection can be minimised.
Bloodstock sales are obviously high risk, with horses stabled close to each other and being paraded for inspection, so prevention of transmitting disease must be the priority, together with a robust vaccination policy.
During February’s EI outbreak, the Animal Health Trust (AHT) carried out invaluable work by testing thousands of swabs from horses stabled throughout Britain in a short space of time. The exercise, introduced at very short notice, proved how invaluable that resource is, and was a visible demonstration of the requirement to ensure that the capability for a rapid response to any disease outbreak is always available.
Of course, there is an insurance cost to maintaining this availability, but the cost of delay is more significant. In this instance every day of lost racing, which cuts through to every sector, would have far outweighed the cost of ensuring that the sport was well prepared.
On a similar subject, the ongoing research being conducted at the AHT to develop a better vaccine for the Equine Herpes Virus type 1 (EHV1), which causes respiratory disease, abortion and neurological disorders in horses, is vitally important.
Up to date evidence from Britain and abroad confirms the need for a more effective vaccine.
With support from the Alborada Trust, the Levy Board and TBA, among others, the AHT’s research work is in its second year. It will be several years before the scientists and veterinarians know if an effective vaccine can be found, and even longer for one to be brought forward by a pharmaceutical company for widespread use. However, that lengthy timeframe should not stop everyone involved from investing in this and other very necessary research.
The bloodstock industry is also very fortunate, and grateful, to have the Levy Board’s support for research through its Veterinary Advisory Council. Those critics who question the cost of some of the work should bear in mind the welfare aspects that are being addressed, as well as the potentially enormous immediate cost that would fall on breeding and racing if they were affected by a serious disease outbreak.
Whether it is Equine Influenza or EHV1, any temptation to relax the work needed to seek preventative vaccines and medicines, to be used alongside tight biosecurity and the Levy Board’s Code of Practice, must be resisted.
The TBA and its veterinary committee will continue to support relevant research and will work to keep members well informed on the risks out there. However, in the end it is up to every individual how they run their studs and to make sure that any disease outbreak is as contained as possible.
I wish you all the best for the rest of the breeding season, and most particularly for healthy horses.