The threat of African Horse Sickness (AHS) to the UK horse population has not gone away.

And with the discovery of the Schmallenberg virus in Britain in late January it is ever more likely, top vets have told H&H.

AHS kills as many as 90% of those horses it infects, and is spread by the same insect as the Schmallenberg virus – the culicoides midge.

Although Schmallenberg does not affect horses, as H&H went to press it had infected cattle and sheep at 158 farms in south England and the Midlands.

And following cases of bluetongue disease in 2007 – also spread by the culicodes – chances that AHS will eventually hit the UK are increased, say experts.

“Smallenberg and bluetongue have spread from Europe in exactly the same pattern as would occur if AHS were present,” said Paul Jepson, the vet who chairs the government and horse industry’s joint AHS Working Group.

“It shown once again that an outbreak could happen.”

AHS has never occurred in the UK. It is endemic in sub-Saharan Africa and the closest outbreak to the UK happened in Spain and Portugal from 1987-1991.

Defra is due to publish its regulations and disease control strategy document for AHS in the summer, but is ready to roll it out at a moment’s notice if the disease were found in Europe, said Brigadier Jepson.

A vaccine could also be produced within weeks of an outbreak.

Epidemiologist Prof Matt Baylis of Liverpool University said: “Horse owners should start thinking about what they would do if AHS were in the midge population of the UK or Europe.

“Studies have shown that housing stock helps to guard against bluetongue in cattle – we need to see what we can learn from this sort of research.”

This news story was first published in the current issue of H&H (22 March 2012)

Find an equine vet