March 28, 2007

Among the symptoms of African Horse Sickness are fever, sweating, breathing difficulties, discharge from the nose, and swelling of the eyes and/or head.

The oldest horse charity in Britain is calling on the Government to have plans in place for what it sees as the eventual arrival of deadly African Horse Sickness on its shores.

Its appearance in Britain could spell the death knell for horse racing and all other forms of equestrian sport.

Climate change has been allowing the disease, which can kill 90 per cent of the horses it infects, to spread ever closer to Britain.

British and European horse populations are considered highly vulnerable to the lethal disease.

The Horse Trust says a similar midge-borne disease called Bluetongue has already seriously affected sheep and cattle on mainland Europe. Bluetongue could reach Britain this year.

The Trust is calling on the Government to:

  • Advise what plans are in place to deal with an outbreak of African Horse Sickness in Britain;

  • Assess the likely impact of a British outbreak of African Horse sickness on the country's £4 billion equine industry;

  • Support research into the prevention and control of African Horse Sickness in the UK.
"Recent changes in climate and midge populations in Europe have resulted in the rapid and extensive spread of Bluetongue virus - which hit cattle and sheep in Holland, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and France in 2006," says the Trust's chief executive and resident veterinary surgeon Paul Jepson.

"African Horse Sickness is related to Bluetongue and is spread by the same midge (Culicoides species). It can kill up to 90% of the horses it infects."

The Trust acknowledges that horses are a low priority for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which would be responsible for managing and controlling any outbreak.

Because of this, The Horse Trust will spearhead:

  • An education campaign to all horse owners to make them aware of the possibility of AHS strike and the symptoms;

  • An information campaign throughout the equine veterinary profession to ensure early diagnosis;

  • A research programme to evaluate the likely impact of the disease and develop appropriate control measures in accordance with the aims of the Equine Health Welfare Strategy.
The only vaccines currently available are live attenuated preparations made in South Africa. These are not licensed for use in Europe, though they can be used as an emergency response when the disease has taken hold.

Research institutes and vaccine manufacturers are already working to develop more effective and safe cattle and sheep vaccines for Bluetongue.

Infected midges can be blown by the wind for more than 100km and transported long distances in farm vehicles.

African Horse Sickness was diagnosed in Spain in 1987-90 and in Portugal in 1989, but was eradicated using slaughter policies, movement restrictions, vector eradication and vaccination. Were AHS to break out in Europe again, under current vector and climate conditions it is inevitable that it will have a much greater opportunity to establish itself - including in Britain.

Although the disease is notifiable in Britain and Europe, a British slaughter policy is unlikely to be viable once the disease is established in the midge vector population.

The British and European horse population is considered highly vulnerable to the disease, with vaccines that currently exist being either unavailable or unlicensed. Some are unsuitable for use where the disease is not endemic.