The following is re-printed courtesy of Bill’s post on Virtual Formguide on Wednesday (24 March).
The Australian horse industry, never united at the best of times, is divided yet again over the issue of what policy to adopt in order to limit the damages bill from a future outbreak of equine influenza.
On one side stands the thoroughbred industry with a pro-vaccination policy and on the other is the Australian Horse Industry Council (AHIC), representing virtually everyone else, who do not endorse the vaccination approach.
A story planted in today’s Australian newspaper suggests that Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke has agreed to allow selective EI vaccination for Australia’s racehorses against widespread advice from experts that such a policy is ill advised.
Thoroughbred Breeders Australia CEO Peter McGauran issued a media release trumpeting the decision while having a dig at the various experts against it.
“The Minister is to be congratulated for his strength of character in reaching his own considered position after months of scientific enquiry rather than slavishly following the antiquated opinions of vets who have no experience of EI apart from the outbreak of 2007. The Australian veterinary profession has largely fallen far behind international developments on the preventative measures used to minimize the risk of EI.”
Interestingly the Australian article is not backed up by an official announcement from Minister Burke’s office. It appears that he has merely “formed a view”, which is not quite the same thing as legislation or a ministerial directive.
In fact the states have responsibility for all matters to do with disease control in humans or animals. Therefore whatever view Minister Burke holds will need to be adopted by each state government if EI vaccination is to become a reality Australia wide.
The thoroughbred industry comprising barely 10% of all horses nationally is keen to adopt a watered down vaccination policy which it believes will allow horse racing to continue without interruption in the event of an EI epidemic.
However, Harness Racing Australia is siding with the AHIC, putting it at odds with the thoroughbred industry. Even within the thoroughbred industry, its fair to say that New South Wales, the state most likely to be affected by EI, is more in favour of the vaccination approach than say Victoria.
Harness Racing Australia CEO Andrew Kelly, who as CEO of Harness Racing Queensland experienced first hand the disruption caused by the 2007 EI outbreak, is adamant that a vaccination based approach is fatally flawed.
“HRA considers that the proposal to introduce routine EI vaccination as a risk mitigation measure while EI is not present in Australia is scientifically flawed, is of no benefit from an economic standpoint and has serious implications from a trade perspective.”
So convinced is HRA of the folly of the vaccination policy announced by Burke today, that it will not mandate that harness horses be vaccinated.
“We see at present no point in making a new Rule of Racing which will make it compulsory for harness horses to be vaccinated before they will be permitted to race or breed”, Kelly said.
Following the conclusions of the Callinan inquiry into the 2007 EI outbreak, the Federal government Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries commissioned a report into future options for managing Australia’s EI risk.
The report prepared by Allen Consulting for the Equine Influenza Expert Review Panel headed by Roger Beale, set out 11 scenarios for managing EI exposure for the next 20 years. They ranged from :-
- strong quarantine measures for prevention backed up in the event of an outbreak by an aggressive approach to eradication using containment and early deployment of a vaccine with an expected cost of about $200 million, to
- well over $2 billion if EI is allowed to become endemic requiring an active vaccination program and associated paperwork involving every horse.
Unlike the Beale report, no input was sought from Australian horse industry participants other than the thoroughbred sector.
This so called Scenario 5 appears to have been prompted by Thoroughbred Breeders Australia, now headed by former Minister for Agriculture Peter McGauran who was in charge when quarantine failure led to the 2007 EI epidemic, ironically with thoroughbred shuttle stallions as the carriers of the disease. That failure of oversight cost the Australian horse industry upwards of $1 billion.
TBA insists that vaccination of all racehorses (thoroughbred and harness) is necessary as a protective measure for the racing industry to allow it to continue to operate in case of an EI outbreak.
According to McGauran:
“A multi billion dollar industry employing 200,000 people and providing governments with hundreds of millions of dollars in essential revenue is entitled to take measures at its own expense to safeguard its and the public’s interests. There is too much at stake for this vital contributor to regional, state and national economies for its future to be decided by sectors of the horse population with no comparable economic loss in the event of another restriction on the movement of horses.”
TBA’s logic appears to be at odds with reality in at least one important respect. If there were to be another EI outbreak, the first measure to be implemented would be a lockdown on all horse movement.
Under the AUSVET plan to control animal disease outbreaks each state’s Chief Veterinary Officer has the power to decide if animal movements should be restricted.
Dr Hugh Millar, CVO for Victoria is in no doubt that this policy would be introduced if there was another EI outbreak.
Dr Millar says “vaccinated horses can be silent spreaders of EI in an outbreak.”
“Any standstill or movement restriction to control any future outbreak of EI would also apply to vaccinated horses.”
“Hence while containment and eradication of an outbreak remains the objective, prior vaccination does not free-up movement.”
“Vaccination makes early detection of an incursion of EI much more difficult and wide transmission of the disease, before it is detected, much more likely.”
Queensland University Professor David Pascoe, who has worked as a vet in England where EI is endemic explained that there are practical problems with a vaccination regime.
One of them is so called “paper vaccinations”. It is well known that EI vaccinations can seriously affect the performance of racehorses, so trainers in England will sometimes ask a vet to sign a horse’s papers saying that a horse has been vaccinated when it hasn’t, especially prior to a big event.
The actual vaccination may then take place just prior to the horse spelling or sometimes it may not, but there is clearly no guarantee that the horse has been treated.
Another is that because EI is endemic in England, sub-clinical EI is present in many stables all the time regardless of a horse’s vaccination status. The cost of this can be radical and requires eternal vigilance from trainers and vets.
“One strong gallop for a horse suffering this condition can pancake it for six months”, Pascoe explained.
A major benefit of having a “naive” (unaffected by EI) horse population is that any infection can be readily identified and traced, according to Pascoe.
“The Japanese had been trying to track down EI for 12 months before their horses brought it to Australia”, he said.
“Because they were vaccinated they had no idea which ones were carriers because they showed no symptoms.”
Even when Japan based thoroughbred stallions shuttled to Australia it was only sloppy quarantine procedures which allowed the virus to escape.
“At Eastern Creek they didn’t wash their hands before they left the facility. At Spotswood in Victoria they also had EI infected horses but they did wash their hands”, Pascoe pointed out.
“The cheapest and best method of preventing EI getting into Australia again is good quarantine.”
HRA’s Kelly highlighted another reason why partial EI vaccination is not such a good idea.
“At present horses can freely travel to and from New Zealand without quarantine because we are both EI free”, he said.
If we introduce EI vaccination New Zealand will have to treat Australia as being an EI risk and will require our horses to be quarantined at a cost of A$6,300. Not only will this endanger trans-Tasman harness racing activity but will also have an impact on the lucrative thoroughbred breeding, sales and racing trade.
There is a political backdrop to the manouvering over the EI vaccination issue which stems from the Australian horse industry’s reluctance to sign an Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement (EADRA).
These agreements between various animal industries and the Federal government set out a legal basis for apportioning costs in the event of a disease outbreak. Depending on the disease’s impact on humans the Federal government will underwrite a proportion of the costs up to 100%.
For equine influenza which is one of 22 diseases which could affect horses, the Federal government would fund only 20% of the cost of controlling an outbreak.
The 2007 epidemic, which was arguably caused by Federal government negligence at the Eastern Creek quarantine centre is a special case as apart from the $126 million direct costs, another $250 million was paid in subsidies and allowances, making it probably the largest class action case settled by government outside of a court room.
McGauran directly associates the TBA’s advocacy of Scenario 5 with the lack of a signed horse industry EADRA.
“The failure of Federal Parliament to pass the Horse Disease Levy Bills, thereby leaving the Horse Industry without an Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement (EADRA), is a compelling reason why the thoroughbred Industry should be permitted to vaccinate against the threat of Equine Influenza(EI)”, he says.
The Horse Disease Levy Bill was an attempt to legislate a levy on all horse owners in the absence of industry agreement which was defeated in the Senate after intense lobbying from certain minority sectors of the horse industry.
However the AHIC is now close to obtaining voluntary agreement from its member bodies about signing an EADRA.
Dr Roger Lavelle, AHIC President is confident that he can finalise consensus on an EADRA based on an equitable levy system which is easily administered.
He points out also that any levy only needs to be collected in the event of a disease outbreak and then only on the basis of what it costs to control.
One levy possibility which was floated a few years ago by horseshoe manufacturer Carl O’Dwyer was for $1 per shoe. This has the advantage that there are few collection points as there are only a few horseshoe wholesalers in Australia. It also levies active horse owners such as racing and performance whose horses are more likely to be involved in the spread of disease due to them moving around the country.
Given that we have a serious outbreak of a highly infectious disease in very recent history the $126 million price tag is a good indication of what the industry levy would have to fund.
With around 1 million horses in Australia the cost is about $100 a horse given that industry would fund 80% of the costs repayable over 10 years.
With an incidence of one EI outbreak every 20 years or so, the cost is $5 per horse per year which compares very favourably with $450 in the first year and then $150 every year which is the cost of the vaccination option.
With State and Federal Agriculture Ministers meeting in April to decide the future policy regarding EI control the battle seems to be more about the horse industry getting its disease control measures in order than just about EI.
It is to be hoped that the AHIC can organise a coherent strategy in time, which it will need to do if it is to avoid the thoroughbred industry dictating the future of horse disease management in Australia for its own selfish interests.