March 28, 2007

Scientists are calling for funding to investigate the life, movement and breeding of the virus-carrying midge responsible for the spread of African Horse Sickness.

Leading scientists Dr James Wood, director of Cambridge University's Infectious Diseases Consortium; and Professor Philip Mellor, head of the Department of Arbovirology at Pirbright Laboratory, say the Government and horse industry should get together to organise money to back the important research.

"We are looking at developing computer simulation models to predict spread of African Horse Sickness in the UK without recourse to extensive animal experimentation," said Dr Wood.

"African Horse Sickness doesn't have to be like Foot and Mouth Disease. Here we have the opportunity in advance of an outbreak where we can have disease experts working with the mathematicians so we have useful models which can be used intelligently rather than as a knee jerk reaction to an overwhelming national challenge.

"We need to look at distribution of the midges, their capability to spread disease; their seasonal incidences and establish a surveillance system.

"It is very important that expert entomological data can be incorporated into the modelling approach to inform our disease policies. If we have an outbreak of African Horse Sickness this year, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) won't know how to apply the statistics because currently we have no idea about how infection could spread in this country."

Professor Mellor added: "Defra is performing wonders on meeting stakeholders and liaising with the European Commission and the World Animal Health Organisation to ensure sensible requirements for the control of Bluetongue which is already within a few miles of our coast. So far they have missed out nothing other than contingency plans - for which the strength of the science base is in question!"

He went on: "The Defra work in Bluetongue in cattle and sheep is in many ways related to African Horse Sickness but we need to extend this work by applying the date on horse populations, movement and the specific means of transmission. There is also a real need to develop better vaccines. If resources permit, we would like more emphasis on African Horse Sickness so we would be able to say with some degree of confidence which form of control would be effective - and at the moment we have least information on the midges which transmit the virus.

"We must learn how to control the vectors and where and when they are about. Models are only as good as the data in them and at the moment the data are sparse."

"There is certainly a requirement to increase the number of scientists working on this virus, especially entomologists. Most seem to be about to retire, and there are huge problems in relation to ensuring that their expertise is available in five to 10 years when the impact of climate change is likely to be greater than it is today."