June 24, 2008

The Australian government should ignore calls from the racing industry for an ongoing vaccination programme against equine influenza, according to the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA).

"Ongoing vaccination won't prevent another outbreak," says Dr James Gilkerson, president of Equine Veterinarians Australia, a special interest group within the AVA.

"The horses who brought the disease with them last year were all vaccinated. Vaccinated horses can still get equine influenza and spread it to unvaccinated horses.

"Only an effective quarantine programme will prevent another outbreak. Ongoing vaccinations won't help," says Gilkerson, an equine virologist at the University of Melbourne's equine infectious disease laboratory.

Gilkerson provided extensive expert testimony to the inquiry into the outbreak headed by retired judge Ian Callinan. Callinan's report, released publicly this month, condemned the performance of quarantine services across the Tasman.

"If there's another outbreak," says Gilkerson, "there's no guarantee that the vaccination being used will work if there's a new strain of the virus. Flu viruses mutate regularly, and imported horses could easily bring in a new strain.

"We would be vaccinating with yesterday's vaccine against tomorrow's virus. Effective quarantine is the only way of preventing another costly outbreak, he says.

The AVA says experiences in other countries support its position:

"Instead of ongoing vaccination, Australia needs to maintain emergency registration of a range of vaccines for use in case there's another outbreak.

"And most important of all, the quarantine system needs to work effectively. Prevention is better than cure, Gilkerson says.

The AVA's position is not good news for racing authorities, which have been vocal in their support of an ongoing vaccination programme for racehorses.

In March, the powerful National Management Group (NMG), responsible for managing the response to equine influenza, granted approval for racehorses which are currently vaccinated to continue to receive booster shots until June 30 - the date when Australia will declare itself formally free of the disease.

Racing interests argue that vaccination should continue until the matter is finally resolved, with a summit on the disease scheduled for late in September. It will be attended by national and international experts in the field.