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Equine Flu Crisis: Exclusion zone in bid to halt spread

Neil Clarkson

Equine flu Q & A

The Australian horse industry is in turmoil with horses outside the two locked-down quarantine facilities testing positive for highly contagious equine influenza.

A 5km exclusion zone has been thrown up around Sydney's Centennial Park stables, where it is understood at least 11 horses have tested positive to the virus.

The exclusion zone include Randwick racecourse. The area is thought to be home to at least 700 horses.

The affected animals are not racehorses and it is not clear how they came in contact with the virus. It is believed at least some of them have been travelling in rural Australia in recent days.

Australia and New Zealand remain the only two countries with major equine populations that remain free of the disease. Both nations have an equine population that has not been vaccinated and will have no resistance to the disease.

It is uncertain whether stocks of vaccine are even available in Australia at this stage.

While the respiratory disease is not fatal, veterinarians says there is a higher incidence of serious complications with equine influenza, compared with other respiratory illnesses. Complications include heart problems and pneumonia. Horses can take many weeks to regain condition after a bout.

State and territory veterinary officials will meet today to co-ordinate the response to the outbreak, said Federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran.

"There could be no more serious situation, to be frank," McGauran said.

McGauran, interviwed on Sky News in Australia, said: "Later this morning, the exotic diseases committee made up of the chief veterinary officers of every state and territory will be meeting, and they will be making decisions about how each of their different jurisdictions will respond.

"We've never had an introduction of influenza in the equine population of Australia ever before, and now 11 horses have provenly tested to influenza A, and if it was to escape beyond the stable of the horses in centennial park it would have a devastating effect on the horse population."

Race meetings across New South Wales have been cancelled in the wake of the outbreak, in a move which will cost the industry millions of dollars. Meanwhile, racing will go ahead in Victoria.

The outbreak is a double blow to the racing industry, with more than 25 shuttle stallions under lockdown in two quarantine facilities after one of them tested positive to the virus after arriving in the country.

It is uncertain what ramifications the outbreak will have for this year's running of the Melbourne Cup, and how the outbreak will affect the many hundreds of horses that cross the Tasman sea each year.

The response from New Zealand border authorities is awaited.

McGauran said: "We won't allow ourselves to even consider the worst case scenario because we are working to contain it otherwise the worst case scenario will eventuate."

The ongoing quarantining of the international stallions has thrown the breeding plans of 2000 of Australia's top thoroughbred broodmares into disarray in the short term.

The connections of the horses can either seek services to alternative stallions, or wait a month for the stallions to be released, this being contingent on no more signs of the disease at the quarantine facilities in question. However, the stallions may not be able to meet the additional demands of a backlog in time for this breeding season.

There are plans for the stallions to service up to 30,000 mares, with service fees in some cases approaching $A200,000.

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