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Keeping horses safe

19 April 2019, at 9:30am

Are all horse owners paying their share to help keep the UK equine population healthy?

In my piece last month, I looked at the equine influenza outbreak and posed the question: should it be considered a dress rehearsal for something more serious? It would seem logical that it will only be a matter of time before there is either another outbreak of equine “flu” or an outbreak of a virus hitherto unseen in the UK. Whilst never an easy question to ask, deciding who should pay for the costs of investigating and dealing with such an outbreak is a very real issue.

Taking the recent and still ongoing equine influenza outbreak as an example, we do not know for sure what percentage of the UK horse population is vaccinated. A straw poll I conducted amongst half a dozen equine medicine specialists found they believed 60 to 70 percent of UK horses are not vaccinated for equine influenza. In many parts of the country, large percentages of the equine population are not vaccinated.

There is a significant potential for contact, direct or indirect, between most horses – whether they are involved in competition, leisure riding or are simply pets. Is this a problem? and if so, whose problem is it? This raises the question as to what economic price should be paid by individual horse owners for ensuring the UK horse population is as protected as possible against the range of infectious diseases they are potentially exposed to.

The recent outbreak has shown that there is inequality in who bears the costs of investigating, and monitoring the situation is necessary to provide the most effective control of the outbreak. There is no doubt that much of the financial burden of surveillance and the resources such as the Animal Health Trust (AHT) are taken by the racing industry via funding from the Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB).

The AHT and their hardworking staff are continuing to do an amazing job in limiting the impact of the outbreak through their detailed advice to the equine industry, allowing them to set up protocols designed to control the disease effectively. Countless samples have been analysed and their staff have been available to provide information at all times. However, whilst the capacity of the AHT to respond to the outbreak of a contagious disease is one thing, the science which allows them to perform this role is another important consideration.

For many years, countless colleagues at the AHT have studied the epidemiology of various infectious diseases and how they may involve the global and UK equid population. As raised in my article last month, this places them in the ideal position to feed into the various regulatory authorities, allowing them to come up with the most effective control measures.

In a recent posting from Celia Marr on the informative Equinevetsuk (EVG-UK) discussion group, the point was made that by 2016, the HBLB had invested around £20 million on infectious disease programmes, research and scholarships, and infectious disease is the largest single area of investment (around 40 percent of budget. Preventing and improving outcomes in musculoskeletal disease and injury is second on the list at 20 percent). Celia explained that the outputs we are familiar with, such as the HBLB codes and the Equibiosafe app, are a tiny fraction of the work that is done. As horse vets, we need to think about where these helpful tools come from. The scientific basis of current advice on management of equine influenza can be traced directly to HBLB investment in surveillance and modelling in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Sterling efforts are also being made by the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) to draw together the various sporting bodies and regulatory authorities of the non-racing equestrian sporting disciplines. The BEF is the national governing body of equestrian sport in Great Britain and deserves great credit for attempting to work out a fair way for the non-Thoroughbred owner to contribute to the apparatus and resources that will help keep their horse safe in the future. I certainly applaud the BEF and the other organisations involved in this initiative and wish them every success.

Of course, going back to the horses that are not vaccinated, in many cases they may be owned by owners who are not involved actively with any particular equestrian discipline. Ultimately, they may prove the major challenge for us as vets in trying to get the message across that diseases such as influenza are a problem for every single horse owner; the mechanism by which we protect the horse population needs to be considered by all of us, not just those at the upper economic end of the spectrum.

The system should be fair, but we all need to pay something in if we are to continue to be effective in protecting the UK horse population.