A hundred horses and ponies in the UK’s equine grass sickness hotspots will be vaccinated against the deadly disease this winter.
And a full trial of at least 1,000 horses and ponies is planned for 2013-14.
Equine grass sickness is a neurological disease of unknown cause that paralyses the digestive system.
Signs of acute grass sickness are similar to colic and include patchy sweating, a distended stomach and constipation or passing small, hard pellets.
The treatable, chronic version of the illness causes severe weight loss.
Dr Jo Ireland of the Animal Health Trust (AHT), which is running the trial with the Edinburgh and Liverpool veterinary schools, said: “This initial study will help us to ensure that the trial is practical to perform on a larger scale.”
In the first trial, 100 horses and ponies will receive four placebo or vaccine injections over a nine-month period.
The Equine Grass Sickness Fund then needs to raise £500,000 for the full trial.
The highest incidences of grass sickness occur on the east coast of the UK.
Kate Thomson from the fund said: “Around 140 deaths from grass sickness are reported each year, but we believe the true number is much higher.”
She said the vaccine trial is a chance to establish the believed link between the disease and the bacterium clostridium botulinum.
A vaccine for grass sickness was used in the 1920s, but fell out of favour.
For more information, go to www.grasssickness.org.uk.
This news story was first published in the current issue of H&H (8 November 2012)