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Fears equine flu may be close to Victorian border

September 5, 2007

Staff writers

Equine flu Q & A

Test results for equine flu are awaited on horses in a racing stable just a few kilometres from the Victorian border.

Victoria has so far been free of the disease which has infected hundreds of horses in New South Wales, with up to 3000 animals probably exposed to the virus and likely to come down with the respiratory illness.

Tests have been undertaken on 15 horses in the stables of Brett Cavanagh, in Albury. The results are expected today.

If equine flu is confirmed, the standard 10km exclusion zone around the stables will take in Victoria's Wodonga area, home to 18 trainers and 100 racehorses.

Authorities are already tracing movements of people into and out of Mr Cavanagh's stables in the last two weeks, and admit they are deeply concerned about the elevated temperatures found yesterday morning in eight of the 83 horses at the stables. The number of horses with temperatures had doubled by later in the day.

The disease has now been found in New South Wales Upper Hunter Valley, on a broodmare farm, said to be close to several thoroughbred studs.

NSW authorities are continuing their massive operation to contain the virus, believed to have been brought into Australia from Japan.

The total ban on the movement of horses in NSW is to remain in place for at least another week, said the state's Primary Industries Minister, Ian Macdonald.

He said the state government was continuing to look at the possibility of allowing "phantom races", where only horses domiciled at the track could compete and spectators would be banned. The most likely venue is Warwick Farm in Sydney.

In other news:

While Australia battles to contain the disease, the news is good across the Tasman.

New Zealand biosecurity officials have confirmed none of the 97 horses imported from Australia since the beginning of August have tested positive for the disease. Story

Authorities also tested horses that had been in contact with the imported animals.

New Zealand is continuing its ban on horses from Australia until further notice.

A veterinary expert said New Zealand needed to take the threat seriously, as equine fatalities could result if the disease ever spread to its shores.

Equine influenza can be fatal in horse populations such as those in New Zealand and Australia, that have not previously been exposed to the viral infections, said Massey Professor of Equine Studies Joe Mayhew.

Professor Mayhew, a lecturer in equine medicine and neurology at the Institute of Veterinary Animal and Biomedical Sciences at Palmerston North, said the outbreak of influenza in Australian horses needed to be taken seriously by New Zealand because of the close relationship between our thoroughbred racing and breeding industries.

"Many of the horses that come into New Zealand from other countries do so via Australia," Professor Mayhew says. "MAF [Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry] Biosecurity here have done a very good job in advising the public and the veterinary profession what to do, in closing down importation of stock from Australia and following up the horses that have come in since 1 August.

"The information from them is very sensible and very clear."

However, he said there were misconceptions about equine influenza - that it is not fatal to horses and that thoroughbreds are more susceptible than other horses.

"Outbreaks in na´ve populations - those that have little or no previous exposure - have been fatal in several eastern European countries and South Africa, he says. This usually involves young or aged horses but can be in apparently healthy, previously unaffected adult horses.

"There could easily be deaths [in Australia], particularly depending on which viral strain is involved. I expect there won't be though because they would tend to have happened already with all the positive blood tests recorded."

Because they often live in bigger groups and closer proximity than other breeds of horses, thoroughbreds and standardbreds may spread infection more readily, but because they tend to be very fit animals, are no more likely to suffer ill effects of the disease.

A fit horse that continued to be exercised or raced after exposure could easily end up with secondary illnesses like pneumonia, in the same way a fit human might more easily shake off the effects of influenza than an unhealthy person, but could also get very sick if they continued trying to keep fit after exposure.



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