Racing lockdown helping to contain equine flu outbreak in Britain

© Florian Christoph CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The equine flu outbreak that has affected six vaccinated Thoroughbreds at a racing yard in Suffolk does not appear to have spread further among racehorses at this stage.

The results of an ongoing equine flu testing programme involving thousands of thoroughbreds has so far yielded no positive results beyond the six in the yard of Donald McCain.

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) will make a decision in the next 24 hours on whether to resume racing mid-week.

The BHA shut down horse racing across Britain last Thursday following the outbreak. Horses from McCain’s yard had last week travelled to three race meetings – at Wolverhampton, Ludlow and Ayr – within a window which could potentially see a spread of the virus.

The BHA is restricting the movement of horses on a precautionary basis at the yards of 120 trainers who competed at the three meetings.

Of the four horses from the Suffolk yard who competed at the fixtures, one has returned a positive sample so far – Raise A Spark, who competed at Ayr on February 6. The test relates to a sample taken the following day, and the horse showed no clinical symptoms on raceday.

The BHA said that testing at licensed yards across the country was ongoing, with a view to quickly assessing and containing the potential spread of the virus, which has proven capable of infecting vaccinated horses.

“The BHA is continuing to build a picture of the potential spread of the disease by testing as many horses as possible from potentially exposed yards.

“The data collected will help to build an evidence base which will allow a decision to be made on Monday as to whether racing can return on Wednesday, 13 February.”

It says the Animal Health Trust (AHT) has now received several thousand samples and is working through the process of testing them, so far identifying no new cases.

The volume of testing being carried out the AHT has made it difficult to provide a precise figure as to the number of tests carried out, but it believed it processed about 720 tests yesterday – the same as the previous day.

Concern spiked after reports of three horses showing flu-like symptoms at the training yard of Rebecca Menzies. The BHA has since confirmed that swabs taken from all horses at her yard have tested negative. Her yard will remain under surveillance and further testing will be carried out.

“Analysis remains ongoing with more swabs being returned all the time,” the BHA said, “and yesterday 5000 extra swabs were distributed to trainers to assist with the logistical challenges of testing this many horses.”

The AHT has also publicly confirmed that a non-thoroughbred, unvaccinated horse was euthanized after having contracted the virus. Several cases in unvaccinated horses unconnected to racing have been reported in several counties since the New Year, the most recent involving one horse in Hertfordshire and two in Suffolk in recent days.

“This shows the threat posed by the disease in unvaccinated horses and the importance of biosecurity procedures and movement restrictions to contain the possible spread of the disease.”

The BHA says equine flu should not be confused with or compared to the common “bug” that might impact some yards from time to time. It is the most potentially damaging of the respiratory viruses that occur in British equines, and it can be particularly serious for younger horses.

Trainers are required under the rules or racing to notify the BHA should a case of flu be identified or suspected in their yard.

The agency says it will be taking a pragmatic and evidence-led approach on Monday over the decision on whether to resume racing midweek.

The director of equine health and welfare for the BHA, David Sykes, said the results of testing so far are encouraging.

“However, the picture is still developing and it remains the case that we will make an evidence-based decision about the situation on Monday.

“It remains paramount that, for the sake of our horse population, we do not take any unnecessary risks. This is not a common cold, it is a highly contagious and potentially serious disease.”

Testing of the swabs is being prioritised to help deliver a detailed picture of the spread of infection, he says.

“Targeted testing, alongside the wide survey of data we have already gathered, will help provide a clear picture as to the scale of the spread of the disease. Any decision will include guidance and input from veterinary experts, including the industry’s veterinary committee.

“We are also working through the process that will be followed in order to give specific yards the all-clear to resume racing. This will balance the clear need for yards to resume business as soon as possible with ensuring that we do not put horses at risk of unnecessary harm.”

The BHA’s Veterinary Committee issued a statement saying that the results so far suggest that the actions taken by the BHA have helped prevent the possible further spread of the virus among thoroughbreds.

The virus involved has been identified as the “Florida Clade 1” strain, which is endemic to North and South America, and is different from Clade 2 strain that is endemic to Europe.

The committee says British horses are vaccinated against both Clade 1 and Clade 2, but this is clearly more virulent than the European strain and therefore able to affect vaccinated horses, though the vaccine will provide some protection.

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