Owners wanting information about swamp fever outbreaks can sign up for a government-run free disease text alert service. But Animal Health, the part of Defra that operates the service, has omitted to let anyone know about it.

The government body has come under fire for the lack of information it is relaying to horse owners close to the swamp fever (equine infectious anaemia or EIA) cases in Northumberland and Devon.

Though the National Equine Database (NED) supposedly holds contact details for all UK horse owners, a Defra spokesman said it is “not the appropriate tool to trace horse owners”.

He said the free text messaging service, launched for the equine community in 2009, was available.

However, the spokesman admitted: “There is a need to raise awareness of this system”, and although it has been in existence for a year, “a news release has not been issued”.

In Highampton, Devon, owners were on tenterhooks to discover whether two horses kept with the animal that developed EIA had also tested positive.

The three horses were understood to have been regularly mixing with the local horse population — in a village that was hit badly by the last foot-and-mouth outbreak.

One owner told H&H: “I heard the horses tested negative from a neighbour, so we feel slightly less worried, but I have had no reassurance or guidance from Defra — despite giving my vet my details because I live within a quarter of a mile of the premises where the case was found.

“There are only four horse owners in very close proximity, so it is hardly a big job for Defra to keep us informed.”

A Defra spokesman said that, as well as the text alert system, all official vets were informed, along with local and national media and industry groups.

He added: “Information is available on the Defra website, which has been updated regularly with developments.”

The disease text alert system was set up for the farmers, but after work with “various national equine organisations”, Animal Health extended the system to equine keepers last year.

A spokesman for Defra’s Animal Health division said the British Horse Society and British Horse Racing Society [sic — we believe he means the British Horseracing Authority] were involved in discussions last year.

But BHA welfare director Tim Morris said that although the idea was mooted last year, Animal Health failed to inform the industry the system was live.

“But it is excellent news that it is working and I’d urge every horse owner to sign up,” he said.

The stigma of an outbreak

Defra has also been heavily and repeatedly criticised for not disclosing the exact location of the two cases.

Last week, a spokesman said: “We do not disclose the precise details of an infected premises, as some owners might be less inclined to report potential disease if they know their details are going to be made public.”

On Monday, the same spokesman said Defra’s position remained unchanged, adding: “The policy is longstanding and subject to strict data protection laws.”

This article was first published in Horse & Hound (23 September, ’10)