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Equine flu vaccine pressed into use

September 29, 2007

The targeted vaccination programme against equine flu is under way across three Australian states.

The two-pronged strategy will see buffer zones established around keys seats of infection, while several thousand will be used in Victoria to inoculate horses destined to race in the lucrative spring carnival, which includes the Melbourne Cup. It is understood the state has received enough vaccine to inoculate all thoroughbreds currently in work - a task expected to be completed in 10 days.

The first 20,000 doses arrived in Australia on Thursday night. They cleared Customs, and officials then individually bar-coded every dose before distribution began.

The inoculations in Victoria are expected to begin on Sunday morning, after veterinarians uplift the phials from Racing Victoria.

n New South Wales, the vaccine will be used for containment and eradication only, beginning this morning.

About 300 horses in a 10km wide buffer zone just north of Mittagong will be the first to be vaccinated in the state, forming a 200 square kilometre southern barrier to stop the spread of the virus south.

Horse owners can either accept the vaccination and microchipping at no cost, or receive $500 to move their horses under permit - but only towards or into the infected red zone.

"Most owners have so far elected to have their horses vaccinated rather than take up a $500 offer to move their horses," said NSW deputy chief veterinarian Steve Dunn.

The state's Department of Primary Industries has set up a Local Vaccination Centre at Mittagong from where the vaccine will be dispensed to teams of authorised veterinarians.

"These vets will be visiting properties to vaccinate the horses from early Saturday morning," Mr Dunn said. "The target is to have all horses moved or vaccinated as rapidly as possible.

"Co-operation from horse owners in the buffer zones is vitally important in the success of this campaign."

Mr Dunn confirmed that some doses will also go to protect high-value, at-risk horse populations within restricted areas. Industry representatives are identifying the animals requiring vaccination.

Mr Dunn said it was important to note that the vaccine was not a silver bullet. "Vaccination will not stop a horse from being infected [but] it will reduce the clinical signs and reduce virus secretion, helping to stop spread.

"Biosecurity, hygiene and movement restrictions remain vitally important to our effort to contain this disease."

The so-called "southern plug" will be followed by other buffers north of Sydney around Gloucester, then around known outlying infected properties and other edges of the Red Zone.

NSW Primary Industries Minister Ian Macdonald made clear that the vaccine would not be made publicly available. "Any use of horse flu vaccine in NSW must be authorised by the state's chief veterinary officer, Bruce Christie.

"The NSW government has developed a thorough plan to ensure its designated doses are used strategically and with precision.

"Horse owners in the buffer zones are at the front line to hold horse flu within containment lines."

Horses given the vaccine are expected to show immunity in a fortnight.

There are now more than 2500 infected properties across NSW, with another 700 given "dangerous contact" or "suspect" status.

Nearly all new cases have resulted from property-to-property spread in areas with dense horse populations, or through people moving between horses. Fresh outbreaks remain within containment lines.

Officials have said there are promising declines in the number of new cases.

In Queensland, the number of infected premises has increased slightly to 425. Positive laboratory results have been received from horses at Tamborine, Brookfield, Park Ridge and Warwick - all involving spread from existing areas.

The state's vaccination programme was to begin this weekend, with buffer zones being established around known areas of infection in the South East Queensland Red Zone. The state will also allow vaccination of high-risk horse populations within the Red Zone.

Biosecurity Queensland chief veterinary officer Ron Glanville said the original strategy of establishing a series of smaller buffer zones had been revised after a number of outbreaks in new locations in South East Queensland were confirmed earlier this week.

"Vaccination will be targeted in very specific areas. We are not planning a general vaccination of horses in the Red Zone in the short term.

"We are conscious that many horse owners desire immediate vaccination of their animals, but initial supplies are limited and the priority distribution of the vaccine is being determined in consultation with horse industries.

"The first priority will be those large groups of horses that make a significant contribution to the economy and people's livelihoods.

"This means racing precincts, spelling farms and other locations where high performance horses are kept."

He reiterated the need for continuing high biosecurity standards to prevent spread of the disease into new communities and possibly to the rest of Queensland.

"If everyone plays their part, we still stand a good chance of beating this disease," he said.

Meanwhile, the Australian Horse Industry Council has voiced concern that decisions surrounding equine flu appear to be favouring the thoroughbred racing and breeding sector.

"The focus of the media on the Melbourne Cup and the Victorian Spring Carnival tends to confirm this concern," it said in its daily update. It urged horse owners in the non-racing sector to make their views known.

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