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NZ can learn from Aust equine flu outbreak

October 4, 2007

by Gabrielle Deuss

The message from Tuesday's crisis meeting on equine influenza in Wellington is that those involved must understand the impact of EI, and industry and Government must work together.

In his opening address, Graeme Hanson noted that the objective of the meeting was to ensure the impact of EI on the economy is understood by all - the effects on the whole economy, the social fabric and infrastructure.

Presentations on wagering and racing, breeding, vaccination and the role of MAF were informative. The Racing Industry described the impact on budgeting for the 2007/8 year, losses from betting, and sales of horses across the Tasman. Michael Martin of the Thoroughbred Breeders Association emphasised the work of the Equine Health Association since 1993, from its programme of eradication for Equine Viral Arteritis (EVA), its publications on Equine Influenza and articles distributed to the wider community describing the devastating effects of the disease should it enter New Zealand. He noted that the high animal health status is a cornerstone of the thoroughbred breeding industry in New Zealand.

John O'Flaherty reported on the visit to Victoria of himself and Bruce Graham. They came away with a better understanding of the state of EI in Australia and the efforts going in to prevent its spread. Strategic vaccination has been implemented with two objectives, to facilitate eradication, and to enable some of the high performance horse activities to continue.

He then gave a brief summary of the disease and treatments available, emphasising its short incubation period of three days and its infectious nature. Vaccination was not a silver bullet, he said; using the vaccine would mean New Zealand is no longer considered free of EI, and its use can hide the disease. He talked about the availability of vaccines, two killed vaccines are registered in NZ for emergency use, and one for use on export animals only. The Australians have elected to use a genetically modified vaccine because it provides immunity within two weeks rather than six weeks with the non GMO vaccines. There are no GM vaccines registered in New Zealand - this one would set a precedent in going through the ERMA process.

MAF pointed out that you can't use a vaccine in the early stages of an outbreak as you first have to identify the strains involved. Also the aim initially is eradication - that relies on early detection of the disease, control and containment.

Some participants favoured pre-emptive vaccination having viewed the devastation the disease has wrought in Australia. But this is not favoured by MAF or the EHA at this stage. Vaccination would be unlikely to be compulsory - this means it could only be enforced by event organisers or breed societies who could make it a condition of entry but it is unlikely that all parts of the industry would commit to it. If NZ did vaccinate and wanted to maintain international recognition of an EI free status, owners would have to have their horses identified and recorded, and they would have to commit to ongoing vaccination every six months. Recording all of these treatments would be an administrative challenge. The racing codes and Equestrian Sports New Zealand would have enough control to manage, but not other sectors.

Led by the facilitator Peter Northcote, the meeting broke into discussion groups and considered a range of issues. No matter what the subject, education and the promulgation of information came out as of key importance. Participants developed a better understanding of the commercial impacts of EI, its affects on international trade, the costs associated with managing the situation in Australia and also they gained a better understanding of what Biosecurity means, and of crisis management.

The meeting provided a very good forum for members of the racing and associated industries. It would be valuable if the other sectors could have the same opportunity.

Racing minister Winston Peters spoke briefly, noting the hard times that racing had been through recently and how it had started rebuilding, "and now this". He noted Government had supported the equine industry and was still supporting it. Biosecurity NZ had half a dozen senior staff in attendance and their work on EI over the last few weeks has taken a lot of their time. However, everyone had learned from the Australian outbreak, and we are all still learning. People went home with the feeling that this is a job "in progress".



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