UK at risk of equine flu epidemic

  • The UK is at risk of an equine flu epidemic unless more horses are vaccinated. That is the message delivered by a new “Fit To Go” campaign launched by Merial Equine Health at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) earlier this month (4 June).

    Research shows that less than half the equine population is currently vaccinated against the disease, which can be fatal, based on numbers of vaccines sold.

    “Around 40% of horses are thought to be vaccinated and that needs to increase to at least 70% to prevent an epidemic,” said H&H vet consultant Karen Coumbe. “There is a lot of anxiety around strangles and equine flu is in the same league as that — it’s just as bad, if not worse.”

    An outbreak of equine flu brought Australia to a standstill in 2007, with yards on lockdown and events across New South Wales and Queensland cancelled. By the end of the year the country was clear of the disease.

    “Flu doesn’t kill many horses but it does kill events,” warned Dr Richard Newton, head of epidemiology and disease surveillance at the AHT. “Australia treated it as an exotic disease because it was new and eradicated it, but in this country we can’t do that because it’s been around for years and we’ve learned to deal with it.”

    Flu viruses changed and it is the Florida Clade 2 strain that is currently active in Europe, and has been since 2010.

    “There is no evidence of Clade 1, but that could change any day,” added Richard. “It therefore makes sense to vaccinate against the current strain.”

    There were more than 30 outbreaks in the UK during 2013 and 2014, and five — two in the Scottish Borders, two in North Yorkshire and one in Leicestershire — have been confirmed so far this year.

    Equine flu is highly contagious because it is not spread by direct contact alone. The disease can travel more than 2km in the air and be passed on via tack, equipment and human touch.

    “It’s seasonal to an extent because as horses go out competing more, outbreaks increase,” said Richard. “There is a common theme of a new arrival at a yard not being vaccinated. We see cases where the new horse is ill but the rest on the yard are fine because they are vaccinated.”

    “Farmers think about livestock as a whole herd, whereas riders think of horses as individuals,” added Karen. “But it’s not just yours that needs to be fit and safe, it’s everyone’s. Stay-at-home horses can be at risk, too.”

    Signs — similar to human flu — are a frequent, harsh cough, fever, loss of appetite, ulceration and soreness of the throat, fatigue and poor performance. Bacteria in the throat can lead to pneumonia and be fatal.

    A series of “Fit To Go” videos, presented by TV vet and author Emma Milne of Vets in Practice fame, can be viewed at: www.horsefittogo.com

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