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Rules on importing horses to the UK are under review following the two cases of equine infectious anaemia (EIA or swamp fever) found in horses that travelled from Romania to a farm in Wiltshire this January.

A report published last week by Defra admits concern that current measures are ineffective.

The horses were imported in December by a horse dealer who sells large numbers of horses to slaughterhouses, horse sales and to travellers in the UK.

The diseased horses were certified healthy on leaving Romania, where EIA is endemic. Had they travelled directly to Britain, they would have been automatically tested again on entry.

But because they spent six weeks in Belgium they were not required to be tested again. They were only picked up by “Defra intelligence”.

A Defra spokesman told H&H: “We are discussing with the European Commission what can be put in place to prevent spread of disease from Romania and other EU member states where EIA has been confirmed.”

He added: “We are discussing the Tripartite Agreement [set up in the 1970s to allow travel of racehorses between Ireland, France and the UK without vet checks] with stakeholders and other signatory countries to assess whether it provides an acceptable level of disease risk management.”

The news will be welcomed by the UK horse industry which has for some time voiced concern that the agreement now covers any passported horse.

World Horse Welfare renewed calls for it to be reviewed following the EIA outbreak. And Paul Jepson of The Horse Trust, who is leading preparation work for an outbreak of African Horse Sickness (AHS), agreed.

“The Tripartite Agreement has always been a concern — and not just regarding EIA,” he said. “But there are other concerns, too. We are currently most worried that AHS might enter the UK via smuggled live vaccine from South Africa.”

He said: “Defra has been on the case with a really good disease team, but EIA has been a wake-up call — it could have been a very different story.”

Dr Richard Newton, head of disease surveillance at the Animal Health Trust, said it is “very easy” to see loopholes in the current importation system.

“What is in place detected the disease this time, but on other occasions it might have gone under the radar.”

He also questioned how easy it would be for disease tests to be falsified in a country like Romania that is “desperate” to export horses.

In January, worried owners set up a Downing Street petition calling for the Tripartite Agreement to be tightened and for health checks to be instigated on all other horses.

This article was first published in Horse & Hound (4 March, ’10)