Polo-horse deaths fuel controversy

Polo-horse deaths fuel controversy

Jun 01, 2009

WELLINGTON, FLA. — The death of 21 polo horses just prior to the start of the U.S. Open Polo match in April continues to unleash a flurry of questions without answers.

A number of Florida state agencies, as well as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, are still investigating.

The agencies are looking at whether action should be taken against the veterinarian who ordered a compounded injectible vitamin supplement, the Argentine veterinarian who administered it or the compounding pharmacy that admitted it mixed the drug incorrectly.

"We're simply looking at the totality of the incident," says Terence McElroy, spokesman with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"We know what the horses died of; now we want to know how they came to be administered and what transpired."

The incident also has brought the issue of compounding to the forefront and has the U.S. Polo Association examining its protocols regarding horse safety and welfare.

Paul Wollenman, DVM, of the Palm Beach Equine Clinic and occasional veterinarian for the International Polo Club Palm Beach, planned on being a spectator at the event April 19. Instead, he watched as several horses being unloaded from their trailers began staggering and walking blindly.

He went over to the attending veterinarian and asked whether he needed help.

The men began putting in intravenous catheters and administering steroids, drugs for shock and sedatives for the horses that were becoming violent.

"I asked if he knew what we were treating, and he said all they had were vitamins," Wollenman says. "They did start stabilizing, but then their gums started getting pink and they were going down, down and down. I thought we were going to save them."

Some of the horses went into cardiac arrest right there. One survived long enough to be transported to Wollenman's hospital five minutes away, but it was euthanized about six hours later.

Dr. James Belden, the veterinarian alleged to have ordered the compounded substitute for Biodyl, an injectable approved for use in many countries but not in the United States, was also at the track that day, according to Wollenman.

"I know he was there beside me battling to keep every horse alive," Wollenman says.

Belden was advised by his attorney, Dan Bachi of Sellars, Marion, Bachi in West Palm Beach, Fla., not to speak with the media.

Deadly dose

Franck's Pharmacy of Ocala, Fla., issued a statement shortly after the deaths that "the strength of an ingredient in the medication was incorrect."

The Venezuelan Lechuza Caracas Polo team released this statement:

"Much attention has been given to Biodyl, an injectable vitamin supplement that is manufactured in France and is used worldwide in horses competing in strenuous competitions such as polo. Biodyl is not the issue in this instance. A Florida-licensed veterinarian wrote a prescription for a compounded substitute vitamin supplement for Biodyl containing vitamin B, potassium, magnesium and selenium. This compound was prepared in the state of Florida by a compounding pharmacy. Only the horses treated with the compound became sick and died within three hours of treatment. The horses that were not treated remain healthy and normal."

Florida State Veterinarian Thomas J. Holt reported that an overdose of selenium was the probable cause of death.

Holt stated that the animals had "significantly increased selenium levels" in samples tested. He reported that the findings obtained at the department's Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Kissimmee were confirmed by independent testing conducted at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville, the University of California-Davis Animal Health and Food Safety lab and at testing facilities at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

"B-12, selenium, magnesium, a potassium supplement — these are basically innocuous vitamins," Wollenman says, adding that this incident was the first he ever heard of involving this injectable supplement.

While veterinarians in his field sometimes use compounds, it is not prevalent, he says.

"Some products are no longer manufactured because the drug companies are no longer interested in producing them, so there is sometimes a need," he says.

"Typically, we only have four to five items compounded."

Wollenman had nothing but praise for Franck's Pharmacy, saying he had used the pharmacy both before and after the incident. The 35-year veterinarian knows that compounding is on many minds now, though.

"It's been simmering back there at state conventions, national conventions for the past few years," he says. "I'm sure it's going to be shoved to the forefront now. But any time you mix drug "A" and "B" in a syringe, you're compounding."