Australian prime minister John Howard yesterday (2 September) launched an official inquiry into the country’s first ever outbreak of equine influenza.

Authorities believe more than 2000 horses have contracted flu in the outbreak that has now spread to over 100 properties across New South Wales (NSW).

Mr Howard said: “We are determined to find out what happened, how this disease was introduced, and whether there’s been a breach of quarantine procedures and protocols.”

It is thought the disease may have originated from contact with an infected stallion from Japan as it was transferred from Sydney Airport to Eastern Creek quarantine centre on the western outskirts of the city. An internal investigation is also underway by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service.

About 800 horses are confirmed as having the highly contagious respiratory disease, and there are now 20 restricted areas across NSW. Racing in Queensland and NSW has been suspended indefinitely, and the ban on movement in NSW will continue for at least another week.

At Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse stables, 700 horses are under lockdown, with more than half now believed to be infected. The Sydney Spring Racing Carnival has had to be cancelled as a result.

Last week the NSW government spent more than $1million in attempts to contain the outbreak that was first detected 10 days ago. The government said it was considering introducing a special wage subsidy benefit for those in the horse industry who have been crippled financially.

South Australia continues to remain free of the disease and the ban on horse movements was lifted today (3 September). A permit system is now in place there.