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Lessons from the influenza outbreak

Was the outbreak of equine “flu” a dress rehearsal for something more serious?

13 March 2019, at 10:00am

Through the end of 2018 and into 2019, many of us became aware of an unusual number of equine “flu” cases on the other side of the English Channel. Several practices put posts on their Facebook pages encouraging clients (again) to vaccinate their horses. However, it was pretty much business as usual and it seemed that no one really took much notice. Then we were hit by a whirlwind when it was announced that racing would be suspended for a day, and then that this would be extended to six days.

Not since 1981, when mandatory vaccination was introduced, had racing been stopped as a result of equine “flu”. Concern soon turned to frustration, even anger, in some circles and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) faced a degree of criticism for overreacting. The British Equestrian Federation (BEF) and many smaller equestrian organisations faced an equal, though less well publicised, barrage of criticism for under-reacting. Most of the criticism came from owners and trainers with the media being all too happy to lap up any dissent. Disappointingly, some vets also jumped in and grabbed a few headlines by questioning the actions of the authorities. Suddenly, everyone became an all-knowing expert about infectious disease control.

Who was right? Who was wrong? As this goes to press, who knows? The confirmed facts from the 2014 outbreak in Ireland, 2007 outbreak in Australia and 2003 outbreak in the UK took years to hit the press. Data takes time to acquire, to analyse and to model. There are fortunately some in our profession who enjoy that sort of thing and they spend their careers doing it. It is no coincidence that these same individuals advise the equestrian sporting bodies and inform them on the risk in different scenarios. One would therefore hope and expect that the right decisions were taken. One would also hope that others in our profession would respect that the right people were making the right decisions and would defer to their greater knowledge and experience.

What was wrong and what was right is likely a matter of perception that will vary markedly between stakeholders, who all have different priorities. Those involved in making decisions of this magnitude presumably learn to accept that you are never going to please all the people all the time. What is more important, the economic loss from stopping racing for six days or 5 percent fatalities among the 60 to 70 percent of UK horses that are not vaccinated for “flu”?

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 racehorses and other horses. Is that a problem for the racing industry? Should racing be penalised for the unacceptably low rate of vaccination in the general equine population? Should racing have to pay for infectious disease surveillance?

Assuming the situation hasn’t changed dramatically between writing and printing this, which is a distinct possibility, has much harm been done? Racing stopped for six days but should be back on track before the Cheltenham meeting, before too many foals hit the ground and before the flat season. One horse has died, a few dozen others were sick and a lot of owners have spent money on extra vaccines. Was that so bad? We’ve coped with divergence of a “flu” strain. We’ve done that before and we’ll do it again.

But what if the next information text that hits our smartphone is not alerting us to a case of equine “flu” but to West Nile virus or African horse sickness? Are we ready? Do we know enough to spot the signs and advise our clients? Is the communication between equestrian bodies sufficient to ensure a joined-up approach? Would the involvement of government help or hinder? Do we have effective means of communicating information to the profession? Can we control or even come close to controlling the misinformation on social media? Can the profession effectively communicate with horse owners and ensure they take appropriate action without panicking?

Many thanks to David Rendle for input into this piece.