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Epidemic down under
Australia's struggle with equine influenza and what U.S. practitioners can learn from it


About a month into the epidemic, when there were several thousand farms affected, vaccination began in the affected areas under strict veterinary control. There were strong arguments both for and against vaccination as well as questions about the need for repeated vaccination. Concerns were raised whether vaccinated horses with subclinical disease could maintain the virus.

When the first shuttle stallions were quarantined, the initial concern was loss of service fees. Then there was no racing for almost six months; money was lost by trainers and owners. The government lost revenue from the lack of betting. The epidemic has cost many millions of dollars. Horse racing is considered an Australian national pastime – the Melbourne Cup is equivalent to the (Kentucky) Derby. At one time there was concern that it might be canceled. However, EI did not spread to the state of Victoria and the race was held.

DVM: Which measures usually prove to be the most effective in treating affected animals and containing outbreaks of equine influenza? What are the challenges associated with such measures?

Dr. Gibbs: There really isn't very much you can do for a horse with EI. Think about it as you would with people: rest is the most important feature. Given supportive care, the horse will recover. In some cases, usually young foals and older horses, a secon-
dary bacterial infection may lead to pneumonia. In that circumstance, antibiotics will be used.

Because EI is not communicable to humans, a draconian approach to disease control involving slaughter of horses is not necessary. The most effective means to contain outbreaks of EI is quarantine. Movement of animals must be restricted — widely to begin with and then boundaries fine-tuned — based on political authority and the number of outbreaks in infected areas. These boundaries can move frequently, even daily.

A good thing is that horses infected with EI do not become carriers. The disease will burn itself out if there is no susceptible population to maintain transmission of the virus. Right now, it appears to have burned itself out. There have been no reported clinical cases of EI since the end of December. This is excellent news.

I understand that the Australian authorities hope to announce by the middle of March that Australia is provisionally free of EI and by the end of the year that they have eradicated the disease.

DVM: When faced with an epidemic of any equine illness, what do you recommend as the most effective means of communicating accurate and up-to-date information to members of the community?

Dr. Gibbs: It's important to use all modern means of communication to get information out — the Web, cell phones, as well as traditional print and the local and national press. Australia is like the United States in that there is a system where states are responsible for communication. They picked up the ball and ran with it. Local papers ran stories every day. The effect of EI on the racing community was national news.

Australia's use of Web technology for this purpose improved quickly when they got going. They produced Web sites, put up maps and published where to get more information. Town-hall meetings were organized to explain the vaccination program.

DVM: What can practitioners in this country learn from what happened in Australia?

Dr. Gibbs: It is conceivable that a completely new type of EI could emerge, against which the current vaccines are ineffective. If this were the case, an epidemic could ensue in the unprotected horse populations of any nation that could parallel the recent experience in Australia.

Practitioners, not only in this country but around the world, should remember that spread of influenza viruses occurs very rapidly.

Equine influenza spread widely in Australia through the commingling of infected animals at shows and similar events before the disease was recognized in the country.

It is always of critical importance to identify quickly all infected horses and their contacts if the chain of transmission is to be broken.


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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