African horse sickness claims 500 horses in Thailand; many more under threat

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A pony suffering from African horse sickness. The disease has a 95% mortality rate.
A pony suffering from African horse sickness. The disease has a 95% mortality rate. © Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation

An internationally renowned veterinarian in Thailand is calling for help to fight a deadly outbreak of African horse sickness in the country, describing it as a welfare disaster for hundreds, possibly thousands, of horses.

Dr Siraya Chunekamrai says urgent help is needed to contain the disease, which has already killed 500 horses in Thailand. It has the potential to kill thousands more.

Dr Chunekamrai, who is chairwoman of the Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation and vice-president of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, is treating many affected animals. She is leading urgent vaccination efforts by equine veterinary volunteers in the country.

She has also launched an international fund-raising appeal to support the purchase of essentials, including vector protection nets to protect horses from the Culicoides biting midges that spread the disease.

African horse sickness is endemic in sub-Saharan Africa and is listed as a notifiable disease by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) because of its severity and the risk of rapid global spread.

Ineffective nets are doing little to help curb the spread of African Horse Sickness. A Thai veterinarian is pushing for urgent assistance to combat the deadly disease.
Ineffective nets are doing little to help curb the spread of African Horse Sickness. A Thai veterinarian is pushing for urgent assistance to combat the deadly disease. © Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation

Horses have no natural immunity, with treatment options limited to rest, isolation, palliative care and euthanasia.

Disease spread can be limited by keeping horses in stables behind fine insect netting, but even the tiniest gaps between the netting and stable walls have to be filled with sealant to stop the tiny insects squeezing through.

Netting and stables must also be sprayed with a pyrethroid insecticide.

The Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation works to improve the welfare of ponies and horses in Thailand and is concentrating its efforts on managing the outbreak of the disease in the central area of the country, which has been particularly hard hit.

 Horses are placed behind effective netting and microchipped so that they can be easily identified later for vaccination.
Vaccines are not being given to horses until they have undergone polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and serology testing to ensure that only uninfected animals are inoculated. In the meantime, horses are placed behind effective netting and microchipped so that they can be easily identified later for vaccination. © Dr Siraya Chunekamrai

Many Thai ponies, an ancient breed in danger of extinction, are being affected, together with cross-breed horses.

Many of these animals are essential to their underprivileged owners’ livelihoods, meaning the effects of the disease outbreak on the human population — already struggling with financial hardship because of the Covid-19 pandemic — are potentially disastrous.

Chunekamrai says a key challenge faced by her team lies in educating owners that mosquito netting does not protect horses as the midges are so small and can get through it.

Fine insect netting purchased with funds from the appeal will be used to protect the horses of those who depend on them but who cannot afford the finer netting, or do not realize they need it.

Once the need for nets and vector protection is met, any remaining funds will be used for feed and other essentials in the care of the ponies.

“This outbreak is particularly deadly, with horses dying quickly,” Chunekamrai says.

“They present with acute signs and with both cardiac and pulmonary forms. Clinical signs include fever, depression, conjunctivitis, swelling above the eyes and lips and dyspnea (shortness of breath).

“The mortality rate is very high at around 95%.”

She says vaccines are not being given to horses until they have undergone polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and serology testing to ensure that only uninfected animals are inoculated.

In the meantime, horses are placed behind effective netting and microchipped so that they can be easily identified later for vaccination.

Containment efforts are also under way to stop the virus from spreading inside and outside of Thailand.

“This is a welfare disaster for hundreds, possibly thousands of horses in Thailand,” Chunekamrai says.

“It is equally disastrous for their owners, many of whom depend on them for their livelihood.

“Despite the restrictions in place because of the Covid-19 pandemic, veterinarians across the country are working tirelessly to reduce the suffering of horses in Thailand and to help owners to protect their animals.”

A fund-raising appeal has been started to support the purchase of essential items such as vector protection nets to protect horses from the Culicoides biting midges that spread African horse sickness.
A fund-raising appeal has been started to support the purchase of essential items such as vector protection nets to protect horses from the Culicoides biting midges that spread African horse sickness. © Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation

She says those battling the outbreak are determined that the country will regain its formal status as being free of the deadly pathogen.

“There is much work to be done before we achieve our goal. However, we are desperate for funds to help us buy netting, insecticides, feed and other essentials to help poorer Thai people to protect their horses from this dreadful disease.

“We would be grateful for any donations to support our work at this difficult and heartbreaking time.”

Donations can be made here.

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