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Equine flu vaccine not the answer in NZ

October 3, 2007

by Neil Clarkson

It's easy to get the impression that the rollout of equine flu vaccine in three Australian states will save the day.

There is talk of buffer zones and "walls of immunity". Vaccine has been flown into Victoria to "protect" the lucrative spring racing carnival, which includes the Melbourne Cup.

Calls for vaccination have been widespread in Australia, most notably from the racing industry.

Authorities have stood firm and, while some vaccine will be used to protect high-performance horses, the majority will be used in the containment programme.

It is therefore inevitable that calls for vaccination across this side of the Tasman have been heard and, again, people in the racing industry have been most vocal.

A flu forum this week in Wellington looked at the issue and, a release afterwards by NZ Racing Board chief executive Graeme Hansen acknowledged that vaccination presented major issues. "After robust discussion, the [racing] industry personnel acknowledged the difficulties associated with vaccination and agreed to work with the MAF/Biosecurity New Zealand on these issues," he said.

It is to be hoped the information presented at the forum is quickly disseminated to horse owners across New Zealand.

Because one thing is abundantly clear, both here and in Australia: It is people that will stop the spread of equine flu, not vaccine.

The French vaccine will certainly help in providing buffer zones, but without horse owners co-operating, there is no hope.

Supporters of a vaccination programme in Australia have talked to health authorities in countries where the disease is endemic. Many, they claim, cannot understood why Australia just doesn't accept it has the disease and get on with a nationwide vaccination programme.

The crucial issue here is that Australia still, we all hope, has a choice. There remains confidence that the country can contain and eradicate the disease.

An experienced vet perhaps summed it up in his comments to the media. He suggested that if countries where the disease was endemic had a choice of getting rid of it or continuing ad infinitum with a vaccination programme, most would opt for the former.

So what of vaccination?

The evidence simply doesn't point to it being a panacea for the nation's racing industry should equine flu strike here. Vaccinated horses will enjoy some degree of immunity, but it may not prevent them getting the disease. Those that get it are likely to show fewer and less severe symptoms. This means a quicker recovery and return to full work, which is clearly a benefit to racehorse owners.

However, vaccinated horses that catch the disease will still shed the virus, but to a lesser degree, reducing the risk of spread. This is key to the strategy of the buffer zones in Australia.

The disadvantages of vaccination are signficant.

Vaccination can hide signs of the disease in an infected horse, meaning it could be unwittingly moved, allowing spread of the disease. Vaccinated horses will therefore be part of any lockdown, just like horses that have not been inoculated. It is generally acknowledged that the use of vaccine ultimately lengthens the amount of time before the disease can be declared eradicated. All horses that are vaccinated will need to be identifiable, perhaps requiring the need for all horses to have "passports" or, as in Australia, mandatory microchipping.

There is no guarantee that any vaccine will ultimately be effective against the particular strain that might be introduced here. The costs are signficant, too. The vaccine in Australia costs $A200 dose. Boosters are required and ongoing annual inoculations.

In countries where the disease is endemic, about 70% horses need to be inoculated for a vaccination programme to be effective. The cost of injecting 70% of New Zealand's 120,000 horses is estimated to cost $30 million in the first year alone. Who would pay?

There are wider issues, still, discussed here by Dr John O'Flaherty, technical adviser to the New Zealand Equine Health Association.

He rightly points out that the use and timing of vaccination in an equine influenza outbreak is always going to be a contentious issue.

"Vaccination on its own has not ever resulted in EI eradication," he said. "It may have a place alongside stringent biosecurity measures and movement controls."

Biosecurity personnel and industry parties are to be commended for proactively discussing the issue.

But it seems clear that vaccination is not a sensible option in current circumstances.

What the nation needs is a clear plan, well publicised, so horse owners are well aware of what strategies will be employed and at what stage of an outbreak.

The Australian Horse Industry Council has clearly been concerned over "big-money" interests and their influence over key decisions.

Racing may be a lucrative industry on a number of levels, but New Zealand is not just a nation of racehorses.

It is important that all groups with equine interests in New Zealand are heard, including specialist breeders and pleasure-horse owners.



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