What is swamp fever?

Read about January 2010 swamp fever outbreak

Britain has 24 horses in isolation and is closely monitoring the outbreak of “swamp fever” in Ireland that is threatening disaster for the Irish horse industry.

“It is fast moving. We’re having daily meetings here and updates from Ireland,” said DEFRA official Paul Manser.

Swamp fever, or Equine Infectious Anaemia (EIA), is a highly contagious viral disease of horses and often fatal. It has not yet been identified in Britain, and is mainly found in America. But on 15 June two horses contracted the disease in Co Meath, 30 miles from Dublin. Six weeks later, 14 more cases have been diagnosed in Ireland, 280 horses are in isolation and 13 yards have been closed.

A spokesman for Ireland’s department for agriculture told H&H the 14 horses that have been slaughtered were in direct contact with the two June cases.

“The problem is that tests for EIA only work after it’s developed to a certain level,” said Chris House, information officer for the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA).

“We have no plans to restrict movement of horses between Britain and Ireland at this time and will keep testing the [24] horses we have in isolation until we’re satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that they don’t pose any threat,” said a DEFRA spokesman. “We will be issuing guidance for the industry later this week.”

But officials agreed if more cases are confirmed, the cancellation of major equestrian events such as the Dublin Show (scheduled from 9-13 August) might be necessary.

“The word ‘timebomb’ is emotive, but yes, to say the situation is under control is speculation at this stage — and in Ireland the problem is certainly likely to get bigger,” said Mr House. “I’ll be much happier in a month — an outbreak here would have terrible consequences.”

He advised owners to contact their vets if they suspect anything unusual, adding: “If your horse has been in contact with one recently imported from Ireland I would be very careful.”

Swamp fever facts

  • Swamp fever or Equine Infectious Anaemia (EIA) affects the immune system. Signs can include haemorrhages, intermittent fever, swelling of head and legs and anaemia. It causes organ failure and death
  • It is spread via blood — usually by biting insects. It is known as swamp fever since it is virulent in low-lying, marshy areas that are breeding grounds for horse flies and mosquitoes (right)
  • EIA is endemic in parts of the US and Australia, and although it has been found in France, Austria, Italy and Greece, it has never before reached Britain or Ireland. During an outbreak in France last year, infected horses were slaughtered and contacts isolated for six months
  • Because horses in the UK have never been exposed to EIA, they are highly susceptible to the disease. Horses can recover but often become carriers for life — so if they contract EIA they will either die or be put down
  • There is a test for the disease, but it will only work after an incubation period of at least 30 and up to 90 days
  • Unlike equine flu, swamp fever has not been known to mutate and infect other species
  • If you have any concerns, contact your vet immediately
  • For updates and more information, visit www.defra.gov.uk and www.beva.org.uk
  • Read this news report in full in today’s issue of Horse & Hound (3 August, ’06)