Ten things New Zealand can learn from Australia's equine flu outbreak

January 21, 2008

by Neil Clarkson

New Zealand is the last remaining country with a major horse population that remains free of equine influenza.

It's an enviable record.

Since September, New Zealanders have watched with interest as Australia has fought to contain a major outbreak and hopefully eradicate the disease.

The Australian experience will likely mirror what would happen in New Zealand should the virus get here.


Movement bans must be policed immediately.
Australia, like New Zealand, has a horse population that has never been exposed to the virus. Such horses have no natural resistance and the disease is explosively contagious.

Most importantly for New Zealand, there are lessons we can take away from the Australian experience.

Having watched and reported on the situation in Australia nearly every day since the outbreak began, here's what I think New Zealand needs to take on board:

  1. It's easier to keep it out.

    This sounds like a no-brainer, but it's worth noting. The Australian containment effort is likely to exceed $A100 million. Horse industries are out of pocket by hundreds of millions of dollars and horse owners have been greatly inconvenienced. Court action is likely from a number of quarters to recover at least some of those losses. The gun sights will be firmly on the federal government, which is responsible for quarantine services. While the cause of the outbreak is under formal inquiry in Australia, it would be a brave horse owner who would bet on quarantine services escaping blame. The inquiry has been told of lax standards and apparent breaches of biosecurity protocol. If the New Zealand government wants to look for a good reason to spend some of its billions of dollars in surplus cash, flicking some extra the way of biosecurity would be a good start. For one thing, Australia has shown just how labour-intensive fighting an outbreak can be. Could we match that kind of response?

  2. Mainstream media will not get the message out.

    This is not intended as a criticism of the major media organisations. They cater to a general readership or market. They will tend to report what they consider is of interest to a general audience, not what they consider horse owners need to know. When it comes to a flu outbreak, the stuff that horse owners want to know is different to what the general public wants to know. The mainstream media in Australia was a case in point. Their initial focus was on three things:

    • How the virus got into Australia.
    • How the movement standstill was likely to cost the racing industry millions.
    • Whether the Melbourne Cup and Victoria's spring racing carnival was under threat.

    They are all valid news angles, but it's not the kind of information that horse owners want. They want the full details of any restrictions imposed, the symptoms to look for, what they should do if their horse gets sick, and what they can do to reduce the chances of their horse catching the disease. Time and again, people were responsible for spreading the virus through not paying enough attention to hygiene. Authorities need to be ready with major advertisements that give horse owners - indeed, anyone who comes into contact with horses - the information they really need to know.

  3. Remember that most horses are not on the racetrack.

    The Australian racing industry had plenty to say in the immediate aftermath of the flu outbreak. The media was quick out of the blocks to report the outpourings of key industry players. They had an opinion on everything from vaccination to the need for an urgent return to racing. Politicians were quick to discuss the issues surrounding racing. General horse owners perceived that racing was being favoured and many formed the view that racing was calling the shots. At times, non-racing interest groups expressed fears that eradication was taking a back seat to the demands from the racing industry to get back on the track. For a time, there were genuine concerns that eradication efforts were going to be abandoned. Those fears may have been unfounded. But authorities would do well to remember the great majority of horse owners do not race thoroughbreds or standardbreds. Yes, racing is a major industry, but the non-racing sector plays a huge part in supporting the horse industry, paying feed merchants, saddleries, farriers and dentists, to name a few. The perception of favouritism of any one sector must be avoided at all cost. Containment and eradication will need the co-operation of all horse owners. Yes, the Australian racing industry did fight for and win some important concessions. But I believe history will show that state and federal authorities never seriously wavered from their key eradication plans. A flu outbreak will inconvenience the wider community, too. Its goodwill and support will be crucial. A public spat between horse interest groups could seriously knock wider public support, and therefore the containment effort.

  4. Leave the vaccination strategy to the experts.

    I will be standing by with a sock. It will be shoved in the mouth of the first ill-informed person who squawks about mass vaccination programmes in this country. Vaccination is a highly complex issue and vaccine use raises a whole raft of issues. I, for one, was shocked to learn that some individuals who purported to be racehorse trainers were actually experts in equine flu vaccination. The vaccine has played a crucial role in flu containment in Australia. The targeted way in which it has been rolled out in buffer zones has been undeniably effective. The experts know what they're doing. Leave them to it. Vaccine may one day be needed to contain an outbreak here. I pray I will have enough socks in my drawer for all the wannabe experts who will miraculously emerge.

    Mass vaccination would be expensive (in Australia, the cost has been put at $A300 per horse each year). Such a programme here would be costly, possibly pointless (if the vaccine of choice doesn't cover the correct strains) and could actually make containment more difficult, because more horses will have only sub-clinical signs). Some in the Australian racing industry squawked long and hard about the need for vaccination in the mistaken belief it would hasten a return to racing. Mass vaccination also needs very high levels of coverage. Ideally, 90% of the horse population would need to be inoculated.

  5. Not everyone has internet access.

    The internet has proved a valuable tool. Official state government websites had important and useful information posted on them. However, not everyone has the internet and, even if they do, they don't necessarily know where to find that information. Regularly timed radio spots for important updates would go a long way to helping those people. Some Australians felt they were being told nothing and, after a couple of weeks, "there was nothing in the paper". Let's not forget the role that breed societies, riding groups, and pony clubs can play through their networks in getting information to the right people.

  6. People will break movement bans. Police it immediately.

    Victoria was desperate to keep equine flu out to give the state any chance of staging the spring racing carnival and its international centerpiece, the Melbourne Cup. Eventually, the state employed private security guards to police border crossings. Yes, the world is full of nimrods and some of them are horse owners. Some will go ahead and move horses and the consequences could be costly and disastrous. A few extra traffic police on the job simply won't cut it. Horse owners should also not hesitate to dob in offenders.

  7. Reliable and timely information is crucial - and forget the rumour mill.

    The disease had been spread far and wide before authorities even had a chance to get their biosecurity suits on. The infection got to an event in New South Wales, and was dispersed far and wide when the competitors and their horses headed home - some as far as Queensland. The news for a time looked grim. More cases and fresh locations were being identified daily. Disease experts know how these viruses spread and had quite quickly plotted the likely trends of the epidemic. They accurately predicted the dramatic rise in the number of cases. It was only after authorities got the upper hand that we began seeing these so-called "epidemic curves". I believe the horse community would have coped better knowing just how the outbreak was likely to proceed and being told how bad it was likely to get before it got better. That aside, the Australian authorities did a good job of getting flu information out.

    Never forget that the world is full of panic merchants, mischief makers and those keen to add some extra spin to a story. For example, I was assured by three different sources within three days that the disease had entered Victoria but was being kept under wraps until after the Melbourne Cup. I put it to Victorian agriculture officials at the time. They denied it and, two months later, we still haven't seen a case there. If rumour-mongering is your thing, you'll be part of the problem, not the solution.

  8. Failure is not a great option.

    As numbers climbed, there was a chorus that Australia should get on with life and live with the disease. It was suggested that veterinarians in countries where the disease is endemic were wondering why Australia was even bothering. The most telling rebuttal came from a veterinarian who commented that if a country was given the choice of a permanent vaccination programme or living without the disease, most would opt to live without the disease. In other words, Australia had a choice. Other countries do not. Vaccination is not only expensive, but it doesn't prevent outbreaks. Countries that have a vaccination programme still face major disruption from outbreaks. Japan found itself in that boat in August. However, containment costs could ultimately reach a point where it's no longer economic. Make no mistake. There will be sectors pleading hardship from the biosecurity restrictions and arguing the disease should be "let in". It will take gutsy and strong leadership to stick to an eradication plan.

  9. Australia was pretty lucky. We might not be so fortunate.

    What could possibly be lucky about an influenza outbreak? Australia had what transpired to be a fairly mild strain. The mortality rate was very low. Fear gripped horse owners when the virus entered the breeding heartland of New South Wales' Hunter Valley after reports that some strains had a mortality rate among foals of up to 40%. Foals fortunately survived the outbreak. The disease can also kill adult horses, with the elderly being more vulnerable. Complications such as pneumonia or colic from dehydration are not uncommon, and can prove fatal.

  10. See all the political point-scoring and indignation for what it is.

    Yes, an equine flu outbreak will do considerable economic damage, but it's also about the welfare of horses. There will be political point-scoring and finger-pointing, not to mention anger. None of it will help get rid of a flu outbreak. In an ideal world, politicians would be even-handed and horse owners even-tempered. It's worth noting that, a couple of weeks into the Australian outbreak, the fluster and bluster largely disappeared. Horse owners were resigned to having their wings clipped for a time and even politicians stopped scoring points off each other. Provided our government is fair in the way it treats each industry sector, and is even-handed in the way it provides assistance to the thousands of people who may very well need it when their livelihoods take a hit, New Zealand will get through it. The sooner everyone plays the game, the sooner life can return to normal.