Europe stockpiles 1m doses of African Horse Sickness vaccine

April 3, 2009

The European Union, recognising the threat posed by African Horse Sickness, has stockpiled 900,000 doses of vaccine against the disease, it has been revealed.

African Horse Sickness, which can kill up to 90 per cent of infected equines, has the potential to devastate the horse industry in Europe.

While the disease is largely confined to Africa, there is a risk that it could spread to Northern Europe, including Britain, with the advance of global warming.

The disease is spread by the same midges responsible for ongoing problems in Europe with Bluetongue, a closely related disease which affects mainly sheep.

The British Government set up an African Horse Sickness working group after concerns were raised by The Horse Trust.

The working group has brought together the government, scientists and the horse industry to work on an action plan for tackling the illness if it reaches Northern Europe.

A government official told Britain's National Equine Forum in London about progress made by the group.

The speech was to have been delivered by Britain's Minister for the Horse, Jane Kennedy, but she was unable to attend because of illness. Her speech was delivered by Arik Dondi, Deputy Director of Exotic Diseases Policy at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Dondi said the government had learnt its lesson from Bluetongue and was ready to tackle an outbreak of African Horse Sickness.

He said pressure from the working group had led to the European Union parliament establishing a European vaccine bank with a stockpile of 100,000 doses for each of the nine strains of African Horse Sickness.

The current vaccine had various limitations, but an improved vaccine was in development, which it was hoped would be available within two years.

In July the working group plans to publish a strategy document detailing the measures that will need to be taken to control an outbreak of AHS. It will include information on how the movement restrictions following an AHS outbreak could impact on Britain's horse industry, worth four billion pounds a year to the country's economy.

The working group's chairman, Paul Jepson, who is also chief executive and veterinary director of The Horse Trust, said he was pleased with progress made so far.

"The vaccine stockpiles are a vital step forward that will allow European governments to rapidly respond to an outbreak and limit the spread of this horrific disease."

The Horse Trust approached Defra about setting up an AHS working group two years ago, after the Bluetongue virus spread from Africa to Northern Europe. Since the founding of the group in 2007, there have been outbreaks of Bluetongue in Britain also.

"People had said that Bluetongue would never reach Northern Europe, but once it did, we knew there was a risk that the same could happen with African Horse Sickness," Jepson said. "At the time, no plans had been made on how to tackle an outbreak of African Horse Sickness, which would have made it difficult for the government and horse industry to respond effectively."