Study planned on NZ's readiness for equine flu

June 3, 2009

Sarah Rosanowski

A Massey University master's student is beginning a study of New Zealand's preparedness for an outbreak of equine influenza.

New Zealand is currently one of only three countries with significant equine populations considered free of the disease, along with Australia and Iceland.

However, an outbreak of equine influenza in Australia in 2007 required the cancellation of races and shows and the movement of horses was restricted.

The cost of controlling the outbreak has been put at $A100 million. The total cost of the outbreak to Australia's economy has been put at $A500 million.

A five-month inquiry ensued which resulted in an overhaul of Australia's biosecurity operations.

Massey's Sarah Rosanowski is conducting the study in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

It will be the first survey of its kind in New Zealand.

It will be sent to non-racing sectors of the equine industry and owners of horses that are used for sports, competition and pleasure.

The first part of the project involves a survey of more than 600 randomly selected horse property owners throughout New Zealand. Survey forms will be sent next month.

Rosanowski is especially interested in the movement of horses to and from shows during the season.

The information collected will be important in developing strategies to control and eradicate equine influenza if it was to enter the country.

"These surveys will collect information about the number and use of horses in New Zealand, how often and how far they move in a year and what horse owners do when horses return to their properties," she says.

"This data will then be used to gain a better understanding the New Zealand horse industry as well as aid in preparedness for an equine influenza outbreak or other exotic or endemic disease."

Information collected from participants will remain confidential.

Further surveys will be sent to racehorse breeders and trainers in both the standardbred and thoroughbred industries to create a full picture of horse movements in New Zealand.

Equine influenza is a respiratory illness that is spread by contact between infected and susceptible horses.

It is highly contagious, especially in horses that have never been in contact with the virus. Horses become sick and require rest for several weeks once they have become infected.

People cannot become infected but can carry the disease on their clothing or horse gear from an infected horse to other horses.