February 11, 2008

Queensland authorities say the state could be officially free of equine flu by March - much earlier than expected - with no fresh cases reported since Christmas Day.

The state is in the midst of a surveillance operation to check for the disease and hopes it can bring forward original late-June target date for flu freedom.

Chief veterinary officer Ron Glanville says while new cases are always possible, "the longer we go without new cases being detected the more confident we become that the disease has been eradicated".

He said several factors are currently working to the state's advantage:

Dr Glanville said a similar situation existed in New South Wales.

A total of about 62,000 horses have been vaccinated in Queensland. The programme has been supported by buffer zones, and movements of horses out of the higher risk areas are being controlled by permits and the use of approved quarantine facilities.

Dr Glanville said movement controls were being actively enforced - some 1800 compliance investigations have been completed with 16 prosecutions pending.

"While the situation appears very encouraging, he says, "we are well aware that often the hardest part of any eradication programme can be the final phase when the disease seems to be at an extremely low level.

"If we are to be successful in the long run, it is absolutely crucial that any remaining cases be reported immediately. If infected animals remain and we are not aware of them, they could potentially cause new outbreaks in previously unaffected areas.

"The current disease situation enabled us to recently introduce relaxed movement conditions, in particular 'on-hoof' movements without permit and multi-movement permits for travel by vehicle. We have also had a significant number of applications to hold events in the red and amber zones and these have now commenced."

Dr Glanville said 'Proof of freedom' is required to be completed before the state can revoke the red and amber zones. "This involves a lot of surveillance work to demonstrate that we don't have the disease anymore."

He continued: "In a previous communiqué I foreshadowed that the red zone could turn amber by the end of March 2008 and then green by the end of June. This plan involved different types of surveillance work to be completed during these two phases.

"While our original plans for freedom by the end of June 2008 remain, with the excellent progress to date, and with the caveat that we continue to see no new cases, we now have the opportunity to bring forward the surveillance work required for proof of freedom.

"Hence, the Primary Industries Department is commencing an intensive operation to complete this work over the next two months. If all goes well, and if we see no new cases, we will put up a case for transition of the red zone to green during March."

Such a zone changes would need to be agreed nationally, he said.

"A national policy decision has not yet been made regarding ongoing vaccination of horses after the existing areas are declared green, particularly whether a third dose will be administered to horses already vaccinated.

"Issues being considered include the level of residual risk that may exist at that time and what is the most appropriate disease risk mitigation strategy post eradication. A decision on this issue is expected during February."