African Horse Sickness, a fatal and infectious horse disease that may spread to the UK due to global warming, could wipe out at least half the equine industry in the UK, according to an industry report published today (December 1).

African Horse Sickness, a fatal and infectious horse disease that may spread to the UK due to global warming, could wipe out at least half the equine industry in the UK, according to an industry report published today (December 1).

The report was commissioned by a government and industry working group – the AHS Working Group – which was founded and is led by Buckinghamshire charity The Horse Trust. The report, African Horse Sickness – Impact on the UK Horse Industry, assesses the potential financial and social impact of an outbreak of AHS on the UK equine industry.

African Horse SicknessAfrican Horse Sickness is a highly fatal and infectious disease, which affects horses, mules and donkeys. The disease is transmitted via Culicoides midges, also responsible for infecting cows and sheep with the Bluetongue virus. AHS kills up to 90 per cent of the horses it infects and is endemic in sub-Saharan Africa. There is growing concern that AHS may reach the UK – as bluetongue has done.

The report states: “…in the event of widespread disease, the introduction of movement restrictions within protection zones around disease outbreaks could have a potentially devastating effect. It is estimated that over half the economic impact of the sector could be wiped out in one to two years, with irreparable damage caused to racing and major setbacks to the various sporting disciplines such as three day eventing, show jumping and dressage.”

According to the report, the equine industry has an estimated total economic impact of over £7 billion and provides an estimated 70,000 full time jobs. In addition, it would affect the 4.3m horse riders in the UK.

Paul JepsonPaul Jepson, chief executive and veterinary director of The Horse Trust, who chairs the AHS Working Group, said: “This report underlines the potentially devastating effect AHS could have on the UK horse industry. It is critically important that an incursion of the disease is recognised immediately so that the control measures can be put in place to limit its spread.

“This report underlines the importance of the new African Horse Sickness Regulations, which are due to go before parliament next year. These regulations will empower the government to take the necessary steps to control AHS, if it reaches the UK.”

AHS has spread to Europe twice in the 20th century, with the last outbreak was recorded in Spain in 1990. The current official risk of the disease entering the UK is low, according to the report. However, the official risk of bluetongue entering the UK was also categorised as low before it reached the UK.

The report, which was put together by researchers from the University of Reading, states that if only isolated cases of AHS reach the UK and are successfully restricted by control measures or unfavourable climatic conditions, “it is feasible that the economic and social effect on the British horse industry will be minimal.”

AHS image courtesy David Mullins
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