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Equine Influenza - An Expensive Lesson

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

24 June 2008 - Last year's equine influenza outbreak cost Australia over a billion dollars - and it could have been avoided if their Government had listened to warnings from New Zealand quarantine experts.

Australian veterinarian, Rod Hoare, says incompetence and below-par quarantine standards were to blame for the outbreak and resulting costs.

He came out of retirement to help eradicate the disease in Australia, which he says is the worst outbreak of an exotic disease in any species in Australia's history.

"New Zealand has much sharper quarantine standards than Australia. In fact, New Zealand quarantine officials were aware of the possibility of an outbreak well before it occurred and actually wrote to the Australian Government asking them to beef up quarantine standards."

Rod says he first became aware that Australia's quarantine standards were lacking when he was appointed quarantine manager for the 2000 Olympics.

"As part of my role, I went to Eastern Creek Quarantine Station which was about 5 kilometres from the Olympic site to see how things were run. I was totally surprised when there were no written procedures in place. Ahead of the Olympics, we had to write our procedures from scratch."

He says the biggest lessons learnt from the Australian outbreak were the awareness of the disease and the realisation that such devastating diseases could get into the country.

"The impact that the equine influenza outbreak had for the horse industry as a whole was huge. It was a very big challenge to eradicate.

"It was total devastation for the horse industry in Australia. Anyone who had anything to do with horses could not work for six months."

While the New Zealand quarantine standards are good, Rod says an outbreak of equine influenza is still a threat here.

He is in New Zealand this week speaking at the New Zealand Veterinary Association's annual conference about the role our veterinarians can play to prevent a local incursion.

"Veterinarians need to be alert to the possibility that diseases can come in. In the Australian outbreak, private veterinarians were not warned that the disease was in the quarantine stations and did not alert anyone until two days after they examined the first sick horses. By that stage the disease had spread quite far."

With greater awareness about equine influenza, Rod says if a future incursion happens, either in New Zealand or Australia, it will be easier and quicker to eradicate.

"Vaccination needs to be approved before anything happens, not during an outbreak.

"If we have vaccinations available we can take a more aggressive approach during an incursion, by vaccinating horses in a ring around the infected area and moving inwards. With pre-approved vaccines, this can be done within days and not weeks."

Rod says since the outbreak, Australian quarantine standards have been tightened and testing for equine influenza is now being undertaken routinely. "New Zealand told us yonks ago that we should test horses for equine flu in quarantine and it has taken a major outbreak for Australian officials to take that action."

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