Top FEI vet on EHV: ‘Nobody wants to see an outbreak like this ever again’

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FEI Veterinary Director Göran Ackerström. © FEI/Richard Juilliart

Nearly 4000 top-level sport horses are in isolation and have been blocked from competition amid the European Equine Herpes Virus (EHV-1) outbreak. They must return a negative test for the virus before they are cleared for competition.

The blocking of affected horses from the FEI database follows a lockdown of international events that was extended to April 11, with horse sport’s governing body, the FEI, urging national federations to follow suit with their national competitions and training events. The official death toll of the outbreak remains at 17.

FEI Veterinary Director Göran Åkerström said while EHV-1 is endemic in many countries, the current outbreak of the neurological form is the worse that has been seen in decades. He said it had tested biosecurity processes and resilience.

“One death is one too many, and we must do everything in our power to stop the spread of this terrible virus. Nobody wants to see an outbreak like this ever again,” Åkerström said. Once the virus was under control, the FEI would put in place enhanced protocols to allow a safe return to play.

“The response to this crisis has clearly reflected the true community spirit for which the equestrian world is renowned, and we have seen members of the community rally together and provide incredible levels of support. We must continue working together to keep our horses safe.”

He said the decision by the FEI to have a competition lockdown was not taken lightly, but it was grateful for the support received from the equestrian community. “We are all aware of the ramifications this extended shutdown means for our sport, our members and stakeholders. The willingness of the community to accept and even welcome the prolonged lockdown is testimony to our collective dedication to the safety and welfare of our horses,” Åkerström said.

Åkerström urged those with sick horses and those who had returned a positive test to send the information to veterinary@fei.org, with anonymity guaranteed.

“We understand that the current situation is creating a lot of uncertainty and worry within our community. The current outbreak is still a problem and we must all be part of the solution. Each of our actions will reduce the severity and the duration of this outbreak and make possible a safe restart of competition.

“There will be a comprehensive and fully transparent investigation into every aspect of this outbreak and the way it has been handled,” Åkerström said.

The outbreak was being monitored through the FEI Veterinary Epidemiology Working Group, composed of EHV specialists and members of the FEI Veterinary team.

British Equestrian urges members to “stay local”

With competition and wider equestrian activities scheduled to get under way in Britain from March 29, British Equestrian is working with the Equine Infectious Diseases Action Group (EIDAG) and its member bodies to help mitigate the spread of EHV from Europe.

Showjumpers, eventers and dressage horses returning to Britain from the Iberian Peninsula have been identified and traced, with strict quarantine imposed and comprehensive protocols in place for biosecurity and testing.

“It’s essential that if any of these horses are infected, we do not allow the virus to escape into the general horse population,” said EIDAG chair Professor Celia Marr.

“Fortunately, quarantine is an effective way to control EHV because it requires close horse-to-horse contact to spread. We are confident that British Equestrian’s Track, Isolate, Test protocols is well under way with the disciplines and is doing its job effectively.

“We’ve all learned the importance of protecting each other during the COVID pandemic – now we need to apply the same principles of creating space and diligent hygiene to protect everyone’s horses,” Marr said.

The EIDAG is advising that all member bodies restrict activities to ‘stay local’ until at least April 12, so no overnight stays or stabling. There are a small number of elite training and competitions which require overnight stays currently scheduled. These gatherings will have enhanced biosecurity and protocols in place which have been prepared by the BEF Director of Equine Sports Science and Medicine, John McEwen.

In a further step to minimise any spread of EHV, the EIDAG also recommend the implementation of a new self-certification process for riders to declare that their horses are healthy have not been in contact with any others showing signs of infectious disease.

Philip Ivens, a specialist in equine internal medicine and member of both the EIDAG and its Emergency Response Group said that riders should always bear in mind, events, training camps and competitions are occasions when infectious disease can spread.

“Making sure that you stop your horse from making direct with others, using your own equipment and monitoring your horse for fever or other signs of infectious disease when you return home are sensible ways to reduce risk. Riders should not be more concerned about EVH at the moment – it is easy to forget that risk of infectious diseases such as EHV and Strangles is always with us and not let our vigilance drop.”

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