A cure for sweet itch?

  • A new vaccine designed to alleviate the distress of sweet itch is available for horse owners to try. The vaccine, which works at removing the excessive reaction to the bites of Culicoides midges, has had promising effects in preliminary trials. Participating horses will be given three injections before the sweet-itch season starts, followed by monthly capsules from April to October. Owners have until 10 February to register their horses for these trials.

    Over the last two years a team from University College London (UCL) has been working in collaboration with the Sweet Itch Centre near Wrexham and with other centres to find a cure for the symptoms that make summer a distressing time for horses and owners. A series of small studies were initiated with horses vulnerable to sweet itch, testing a range of reagents aiming to regulate the reaction of the immune system to the midge bites.

    The majority of horses do not have an allergic reaction to midge bites, but in an unfortunate 5% the immune system over-reacts producing irritable skin conditions. The team from UCL have endeavoured to return the horse’s immune system to its prime function of recognising, regulating and responding to assault, thereby maintaining the health of the horse. In the most extreme cases repeated doses are necessary but animals with a short history of disease can be treated easily and swiftly.

    During the first year of research the most effective of these bacterial immuno-modulators was identified. In the second year it was established that 25% or more of horses received excellent benefit and 50% of animals showed a measurable improvement in their symptoms. Overall, three years of research showed that with an improved and more intensive protocol, the symptoms of a great majority of horses showed a marked improvement.

    Following the success of these preliminary trials, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) has approved a larger scale trial, which horse owners have until 10 February to register for at a cost of £235. For further information contact the National Sweet Itch Centre (tel: 01352 771718) or www.sweet-itch.com.

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