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Equine flu inevitable given racing's breeding stance

September 11, 2007

Australia's outbreak of equine flu is an almost inevitable consequence of the thoroughbred industry insistence on natural insemination, according to a University of Sydney professor. Elizabeth Heath reports.

Not long before the equine flu outbreak, Dr Phil McManus from the School of Geosciences sent out an Australia-wide questionnaire to thoroughbred horse breeders. He asked them what they thought was the biggest threat to their industry.

Dr Phil McManus: "This could've been a lot worse."
"They said the biggest threat was a new equine virus. The only other worry anywhere near that on scale was drought," he says.

Dr McManus and Associate Professor Glenn Albrecht from the University of Newcastle are in the first year of their three-year ARC Discovery Grant looking at the role of nature and tradition in thoroughbred breeding.

He says equine flu was an almost inevitable consequence of the thoroughbred industry's insistence on natural insemination. A horse bred from artificial insemination (AI) cannot be registered - "You couldn't race it or breed from it," Dr McManus says.

"And the foal has to be born from the womb of that mare, so you can't do embryo transfer, either. You have all these horses moving not only around Australia, but also internationally."

And there are now rumours circulating throughout the industry that there may have been unofficial "easing" of quarantine regulations, Dr McManus says. "And if it is the case, that subcontracted private vets were not practising good quarantine procedures going back to 2005, then it has taken just two or three seasons to all go haywire."

The world-wide travel of thoroughbreds and a suspected breach in quarantine procedures has combined with ineffective back-up measures, says Dr McManus.

"There has been a lack of understanding once this virus did get out. We have had people moving around spreading the disease accidentally. It is so virulent, it can be spread by clothing.

"At this stage it still can be stopped. But there will be considerable fall-out from all of this."

The fall-out will include calls to change breeding regulations and allow AI. "And there will be a reduced foal crop for next year," he adds.

But, he says, the political fall-out could be even greater. "Will the terms of reference for the government inquiry just be a way of protecting certain ministers as has been suggested in the press? Will governments and taxpayers be prepared to spend money supporting this industry?

"Should industries be supported during an economic disaster? Or just when there are natural disasters? So that will be the main fall-out."

And, as he points out, it all could've been so much worse. After all, equine virus isn't fatal for most healthy horses, unlike West Nile Horse Virus or foot and mouth disease.

Dr McManus suspects the outbreak of equine flu will shine a bright spotlight on the issue of biosecurity.

"This could've been a lot worse in terms of disease and the impacts, so it is certainly an expensive wake-up call. There are lessons to be learnt. Whether they will be learnt is another matter."



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