We should not be shocked that equine influenza has emerged in Australia. What is surprising is that we kept it out for so long. The Australian thoroughbred breeding and racing industry has received huge financial benefits from globalisation, but this process carries enormous risks. Foremost is the risk of disease.
Horses travelling overseas to race are not new - Phar Lap undertook an ill-fated journey to compete in the United States in the 1930s. Today the transportation of thoroughbreds for breeding and racing is a global industry. Each year horses arrive in Melbourne for the spring carnival. In recent times the Australian horses Choisir, Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Bentley Biscuit and Magnus have competed at Royal Ascot in England.
Globalisation also includes exporting horses for racing to locations such as Hong Kong, where there is no breeding industry, sending Australian stallions overseas for the northern hemisphere breeding season, and attracting well-heeled buyers from locations such as South Africa, South Korea and Japan to major thoroughbred auctions in Australia.
The less visible travelling that appears responsible for the outbreak of horse flu in Australia is the movement of horses for breeding. Thoroughbred breeding used to be mainly a regional or state-based activity. This changed with the arrival of "shuttle stallions" in the 1990s.
Stallions could serve mares in the northern hemisphere and then shuttle to Australia and serve mares to our breeding and racing calendar. If travelling was too risky for a stallion, then mares could be sent overseas. Australian mares were sent to Japan to be mated with Sunday Silence in the late 1990s. The different breeding seasons, and improved transport technology, make it possible to manipulate time and space to increase income.
Globalisation increases the risk of disease spreading between locations, and across different breeds. The risk can be reduced by limiting travel. It is technically possible to use artificial insemination for breeding, as is done with dairy cattle and with standardbreds. Semen is transported, not animals. The issue is that artificial insemination, cloning and embryo transfer are banned in thoroughbred breeding and racing. If an animal is not conceived by a natural mating and born from the womb of the same mare it is not registered in the stud book. An unregistered animal cannot race nor be used for breeding.
The globalisation of thoroughbred breeding and racing means the industry in each country values inclusion in the stud book. Therefore no country is likely to change breeding practices. While this upholds tradition and provides employment in a labour-intensive industry, it also necessitates animals travelling for breeding. The risk of disease spreading is increased at the busiest time of the year for thoroughbred breeders.
The prospect of a new equine disease threatening individual studs and the thoroughbred industry was known to thoroughbred breeders in the Upper Hunter in 2005. A survey of breeders identified the most threatening scenario for both individual studs and for the region to be "a new equine virus". This was more threatening than climate change, drought and coalmining. Research in progress with Glenn Albrecht at the University of Newcastle highlights similar results elsewhere in Australia.
An outbreak of disease in Kentucky in 2001 highlights why breeders are concerned. The presence of the eastern tent caterpillar in the premier thoroughbred breeding region in the United States resulted in many pregnant mares aborting their foals and other foals being born weak. Breeders moved mares to other states to avoid the problem.
While it did not close racing, the Kentucky thoroughbred breeding industry lost $US500 million in 2001. Outbreaks of horse flu in South Africa in 1986 and Hong Kong in 1992 did close thoroughbred racing in those locations for between one and four months.
While horse flu is serious, more deadly diseases such as West Nile fever or the Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis would cause high rates of morbidity and economic devastation. How governments and horse industries respond to the current flu crisis in Australia is crucial. Big studs could lose income and many workers' livelihoods are dependent on equine activities. If the response is effective, the industries will survive and can learn from this experience. If lessons are not learned, the benefits of a global breeding and racing industry may be wiped out. Preventing the spread of any serious equine disease is worth the short-term cost.
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on August 28, 2007
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