EI vaccination: a victory of dollars over sense?

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In August 2007, a much respected horseman of some international repute dropped me an email to express dismay at the outbreak of equine influenza in Australia.

He had travelled the world by horseback and knew only too well how equine flu was capable of spreading in a population never before exposed to it.

Mark my words, he warned, the virus was out and there was no holding it back.

Many would have agreed. Before authorities had grasped what had happened, the disease had spread from New South Wales into Queensland.

I had written only the second or third of what would ultimately prove to be hundreds of stories on the outbreak and its aftermath.

I had no hesitation in going into bat for Australia.

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Actually, I replied, Australia and New Zealand are pretty good on the biosecurity front.

Australia’s quarantine service was later to take a pounding for letting the virus escape from its Eastern Creek facility, but our trans-Tasman neighbours were much better than that.

Certainly, it could easily have been show over.

The battle began. Movement controls. Buffer zones. Targeted vaccinations.

Peter McGuaran
Peter McGuaran

Federal agriculture minister Peter McGauran appealed for the public’s help in adhering to movement controls and other measures as the fight began.

He told media that an iron curtain had fallen. “There could be no more serious situation, to be frank,” McGauran said.

Federal and state authorities threw everything they could at containing the virus and won an impressive victory.

It was, in many respects, their finest hour.

It goes without saying that some pretty clever senior veterinarians and epidemiologists were working hard behind the scenes, driving an eradication programme that many thought would fail.

McGauran urged them on, and led as you would expect the minister of agriculture to do.

Times, it seems, have changed.

McGauran is no longer agriculture minister. He is no longer an MP, following the election of the Rudd Government.

These days he is chief executive of Thoroughbred Breeders Australia.

Yesterday, he put out a statement in support of Agriculture Minister Tony Burke’s decision to support voluntary equine influenza vaccinations.

Many in the racing industry want the right to vaccinate, and, as the key representative of thoroughbred breeders, one can understand that McGuaran would be pleased.

However, the cynic in us might see McGauran as somewhat ungracious in the comments in his press statement.

Tony Burke
Tony Burke

“The minister is to be congratulated for his strength of character in reaching his own considered position after months of scientific enquiry rather than slavishly following the antiquated opinions of vets who have no experience of EI apart from the outbreak of 2007,” he said.

“The Australian veterinary profession has largely fallen far behind international developments on the preventative measures used to minimise the risk of EI.

“EI vaccination for thoroughbreds occurs all around the world without difficultly or mishap and it is a matter of puzzlement in international circles why the Australian industry has been prevented from taking the necessary steps to safeguard its own future.”

It seems that Australia’s veterinary authorities – who, on my reading, appear mostly opposed to vaccination against equine flu in the absence of the disease – are now the holders of antiquated opinions.

International circles are puzzled by the opposition to vaccination in Australia, McGauran argues.

However, many of those authorities would have little or no experience of a nation where the disease is not endemic.

After all, only Australia, New Zealand and Iceland remain free of the disease.

There is not the space here to argue the merits of a vaccination programme.

Minister Burke has clearly weighed the evidence and decided that protection of racing interests outweigh the down sides that clearly persuade veterinarians to the view that there should be no such vaccination programme.

How this decision will affect trans-Tasman horse movements is not entirely clear, but the Australian Horse Industry Council clearly believes it creates hurdles.

There will be victims here, but I guess it’s pretty clear they won’t be in the Australian racing industry.

McGauran has taken his pot shot at the veterinary industry and has to live with that.

I’d be the first to accept that my opinion counts for very little but, for what it’s worth, I think Australian veterinary authorities deserve a great deal of admiration for the way they stepped up and won the fight against equine influenza – antiquated views or not.

For McGauran to take a swipe does not reflect well, in my opinion.

The racing industry has won a victory, but it may well prove to be one of dollars over sense.

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