A government official told attendees at the National EquineForum about the progress made by a working group focused on AfricanHorse Sickness (AHS).
The speech was written by Jane Kennedy MP, the Minister for the Horse, but – due to ill health – was delivered by Arik Dondi, deputy director of Exotic Diseases Policy at DEFRA.
The AHS Working Group, which was founded and is led by Buckinghamshire charity The Horse Trust, brings together the government, scientists and the horse industry to work on an action plan for tackling the illness if it reaches Northern Europe.
AHS is the most devastating horse illness worldwide, killing around 90 per cent of infected horses. At present, the disease is largely confined to Africa, but with global warming, there is a risk that the disease could spread to Northern Europe, including Britain.
At the National Equine Forum, Dondi said that the government has learnt lessons from Bluetongue, so if African Horse Sickness comes to our shores it will be ready to tackle it.
He spoke about the work of the AHS Working Group, chaired by The Horse Trust, including how the group has worked with DEFRA to produce leaflets with information on recognising the symptoms of AHS and how to control the insects that transmit the virus.
Pressure from the AHS Working Group has led to the EU parliament establishing a European vaccine bank with a stockpile of 100,000 doses for each of the nine strains of AHS.
The current vaccine has various limitations, but an improved vaccine is in development, which it is hoped will be available within two years.
In July 2009, the Working Group plans to publish a strategy document detailing the measures that will need to be taken to control an outbreak of AHS. The document will include information on how the movement restrictions following an AHS outbreak could impact the £4bn horse industry, including the impact on horse racing, eventing, agriculture and private horse owners.
Paul Jepson, chief executive and veterinary director of The Horse Trust, who chairs the AHS Working Group said: “I am delighted with the progress made so far by the African Horse Sickness Working Group. The vaccine stockpiles are a vital step forward that will allow European governments to rapidly respond to an outbreak and limit the spread of this horrific disease.”
The Horse Trust approached DEFRA about setting up an AHS working group two years ago, after the Bluetongue virus spread from Africa to Northern Europe. Since the founding of the AHS Working Group in 2007, there have been outbreaks of the Bluetongue virus in the UK also.
Mr Jepson said: “People had said that Bluetongue would never reach Northern Europe, but once it did, we knew there was a risk that the same could happen with African Horse Sickness. At the time, no plans had been made on how to tackle an outbreak of African Horse Sickness, which would have made it difficult for the government and horse industry to respond effectively.”
For more information on African Horse Sickness, download The Horse Trust leaflet here .
S African AHS images courtesy of David Mullins