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Equine flu could leave 70% of broodmares empty - breeders

September 15, 2007

Up to 70 per cent of New South Wales thoroughbred broodmares could remain empty this season as the state's breeding industry counts the rising cost of the equine influenza outbreak.

With top stallions still locked up in quarantine and a movement ban in place, breeders face few options and see little sign that the stringent measures across the state will be eased anytime soon.

Thoroughbred Breeders' Australia president John Messara reckons the breeding industry could lose more than $A800 million due to the outbreak, which has badly hit the breeding heartland of the Hunter Valley.

Based on the number of mares served in the state last year, he estimated 70% or more may not end up in the foal if the lockdown continued.

Related story: Equine flu not killing foals, as first feared

The Board of Thoroughbred Breeders Australia says it supports the containment programme, but is backing a national vaccination programme which it says should be started immediately.

The entire Australian horse industry is at risk, he said, with the plight of the thoroughbred racing and breeding industry being particularly acute in terms of economic loss.

"The use of vaccine must be approved as an adjunct to the control and eradication of equine influenza," Messara said.

The breeders body joins the growing voice of the vaccination lobby as New South Wales authorities express confidence in containment measures that have seen the state locked down during the equine flu outbreak.

Some racehorse trainers have said they will be out of business in a few months and argue vaccination is the only sensible way forward.

However, NSW deputy chief veterinary officer Ian Roth backed the containment strategies that have seen a ban on horse movements across the state for the last three weeks.

Properties with horses infected with equine influenza cover only a fraction of the land area of NSW, he said. "Less than five per cent of the almost 170,000 horses in NSW have so far tested positive for the disease.

"A clear majority of the horse population is located in areas of the state not currently affected by the equine influenza outbreak.

"Although the number of infected properties continues to steadily rise, new infections have shown up in places that were expected, either though our tracing or lateral spread to nearby properties.

"Most new infections are occurring on small properties with relatively few horses, and most of these are confined to a few districts with high horse populations."

Mr Roth said the large restricted areas around infected properties may be giving the impression that the disease is more widespread than it actually is.

"These buffer zones are mostly based on local government areas, to help locals get a better understanding of the boundaries."

He said the fact that equine flu was not emerging in new areas of the state was a sign that the strategies of movement restrictions and tracing were effective.

"We have been able to limit the spread and this gives us confidence that our movement standstill strategy of confining horse flu to relatively few animals in a defined band of NSW is working, even though infection numbers continue to rise.

"Unfortunately, the short-term consequences of keeping the disease contained are that the indefinite movement restrictions must continue and the need for all properties in restricted areas to continue to enforce strict quarantine procedures."

But for those whose racing livelihoods have been shut down by the outbreak, vaccination is being touted as the best way forward. Their view has been backed publicly by several veterinarians.

There are claims the highly contagious respiratory disease has not been contained at all.

However, reports suggest vaccination is not without its problems. All breeds would have to be treated, and the vaccine may need to be changed regularly to match new strains.

There are 350,000 horses across Australia and a vaccination programme could take six weeks to complete.

Repeat injections are necessary it could cost owners up to $A200 a horse each year.

In other news, NSW's Racing and Sports Minister Graham West has announced a $A525,000 fund to promote the NSW horse industry along the long road to recovery. The fund will allow both racing and recreational industries to promote their events and activities to maximise their income in the wake of huge losses during the flu shutdown.

Mr West said racing codes will share $400,000 and the recreational horse industry will share in $75,000. NSW's eight tourism regions will share in $50,000 to help promote recreational horse riding.

"Tens of thousands of families rely on the ongoing viability of the NSW horse industry to survive," he said.

"This direct financial assistance will help the industry remain sustainable into the future."

The Minister also announced that approval has been granted by the National Consultative Committee on Emergency Animal Diseases for a "phantom" nine-race meeting at Warwick Farm on Saturday.

The public will not be allowed trackside but they will be able to watch race broadcasts. Only stewards, trainers, strappers and jockeys will be allowed at the course. Only horses already quarantined at the track will be involved.

"We will evaluate the success of the Warwick Farm meeting before considering extending 'phantom races' to other racecourses."

Meanwhile, most of the 268 horses left stranded at an event at Warwick, Queensland, when the lockdown was imposed, are reported to be improving after the disease swept through the population. Only about 20 per cent are now being treated for flu symptoms.

An impromptu settlement for the horses' owners and caregivers was set up called Morgantown. It includes a makeshift school for the children.



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