Equine flu is a headache for horse owners worldwide, with the exception of Australia and Iceland where it is not seen. The disease can be very debilitating and often leaves long-lasting problems for horses affected by it. Most livery yards will not allow unvaccinated animals to enter the premises and many official bodies including the Jockey Club and FEI disciplines insist that animals competing in their events are vaccinated against equine flu and must have an up-to-date certificate confirming this before they are allowed entry into an event.
What is Equine Flu?
The Equine Influenza Virus which causes the disease in horses is closely related to the strain of viruses which cause outbreaks of human flu every winter. The disease attacks the respiratory system and causes very unpleasant symptoms including; raised temperature, lethargy, loss of appetite, nasal discharge and a harsh, dry cough. Equine flu is highly contagious, spreading rapidly from horse to horse.
Most horses recover within a couple of weeks but complications can arise due to bacterial infection which often causes pneumonia and extremely severe secondary disease which in some cases can prove fatal. Recovery in serious cases can take many months.
Despite the fact that an effective vaccine is readily available at a relatively low cost, many horses remain unvaccinated. The latest survey indicates that the number of animals vaccinated in the UK is less than 40%. Consequently, regular outbreaks occur which seems unnecessary given the availability of a vaccine. This could also be blamed on the nature of the flu virus. As with the human version, the equine influenza virus tends to mutate and change with time meaning that the efficacy of the vaccine can be compromised. Human flu vaccines are updated regularly to keep pace with evolving strains of flu, and it’s clearly important that the same strategy is adopted for equine flu vaccines.
First of all, most of us have had the flu at some time in our lives, and we know that it’s not pleasant. Who wants to risk their horse feeling like that, or worse, if it can be prevented? Then there’s the risk that your horse could infect many others if he were to come down with equine flu. You wouldn’t be able to compete your horse if he was not vaccinated; modern passports contain a section where vaccination records are kept and you will need to present this to register him for competition under FEI rules. It’s also highly likely that you would not be allowed to move your horse onto a livery yard if he wasn’t vaccinated.
Back in 2007, there was an outbreak of equine flu in Australia, a country where the disease was not seen and therefore no horses were vaccinated. The disease originated from a quarantine station near Sydney where infected horses were being held. The virus escaped and the infection spread so rapidly that over 76,000 horses became infected in over 10,000 premises right across Queensland and New South Wales. Horse movement was immediately restricted and a vaccination programme commenced which effectively stopped the spread of the virus in its tracks. This demonstrates just how quickly the disease can spread through a horse population which has not been protected through vaccination.
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