It’s 10 years since equine influenza devastated NSW racing

Equine influenza crisis dragged racing to its knees


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Vet Dr Jonathon Lumsden vaccinates racehorse Hurrah at Rosehill in the middle of the EI crisis in NSW.

Vet Dr Jonathon Lumsden vaccinates racehorse Hurrah at Rosehill in the middle of the EI crisis in NSW.

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EI emergency sent shockwaves through the racing industry

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It devastated the NSW racing and breeding industries for eight months, infected 47,000 horses on nearly 6000 properties and left authorities struggling to deal with the outbreak.

Equine influenza brought racing to its knees in NSW, and it’s now 10 years since the disease struck and then was finally pulled up in the straight, 10 months later.

This week,  the  NSW Department of Primary Industries marked its win over the disease that started with an infection in a horse in Centennial Park in the middle of Sydney and quickly spread to racehorses at nearby Randwick.

The biosecurity emergency started at about 3pm on August 24, 2007, when the Chief Veterinarian told Racing NSW of a confirmed case of EI at Centennial Park. An emergency meeting was held at 5pm by peak racing officials and an immediate lockdown of Randwick and its stables was ordered. But it was too late. A confirmed case of EI was detected at Randwick five days later.

The NSW DPI led the fight against the EI outbreak.

The NSW DPI led the fight against the EI outbreak.

Immediately the racing industry went into damage control, restricting the movements of all horses without permits and setting up green and amber zones where closed race meetings could be held.

Eventually 211 race meetings were cancelled, with $32m lost in prize money and the TAB taking a $200m hit in lost revenue. The personal and financial cost to jockeys, stable hands and trainers was just as heavy. Lives were put on hold and no one at that stage knew if NSW would ever break free of the disease.  But it did, eventually, by eight months’ time.

Amazingly, 10 years later, it is possible to look back and say the disease is completely  eradicated.

DPI Deputy Director General of Biosecurity and Food Safety, Dr Bruce Christie, said DPI were the lead agency in the NSW eradication campaign on equine influenza, which at its peak infected 47,000 horses on 5943 properties in NSW.

“It is 10 years since equine influenza was first detected in NSW and then Queensland and while we are celebrating our success, DPI continues to ensure NSW retains its tough biosecurity measures,” Dr Christie said.

“Australia  did what other countries couldn’t do – eradicate this disease.  It still remains endemic in Europe (except for Iceland), North and South America.

“The campaign in NSW was led by DPI and it was the largest of its type ever undertaken in Australia, using the latest laboratory, vaccine, surveillance, mapping and communication technologies.

“I would like to congratulate the 2000 staff involved who worked at state and local disease centres, nine forward command posts, 14 local vaccine centres and on affected properties.

“I would also like to thank the 1500 people from the horse industry who played a pivotal role using their experience and administrative skills as part of the control operations as well as the individual horse owners who cooperated with the control program.

“The impact of containing this outbreak cannot be emphasised enough – it would have caused devastating impacts on individual horse owners, the horse industry and associated sectors, as well as other economic impacts across NSW.”

The DPI said Equine influenza (EI) is an acute, highly contagious, viral disease that can cause rapidly spreading outbreaks of respiratory disease in susceptible populations of horses. Most horses recover within a few of weeks if they are given good care and rest, however in rare cases it can cause deaths in young foals or old horses.

“Success in the control of EI was due to DPI’s rapid response, our collaboration with Biosecurity Queensland, cooperation from the horse industry and all associated sectors, locking down of all horse movements, quarantining infected properties and introducing zoning, which allowed some normal activities such as breeding to go ahead,” Dr Christie said.

“NSW remains EI-free, thanks to horse owners, industry and the public whose assistance during the 2007-08 outbreak allowed NSW to achieve a monumental victory over this disease. “Under the new Biosecurity Act, biosecurity is a shared responsibility and all members of the public have a duty to protect themselves and the community, the economy and the environment from biosecurity threats.”

Eventually 50,000 horses were vaccinated, 16,000 movement permits were processed and 

132,000 laboratory tests were carried out, with as many as 3,000 per day being done at the peak of operations.

By July 2008 horse industry operations had returned to normal, but the cost had been terrible for many participants. The racing industry successfully negotiated a $235 million compensation package from the Federal Government, which helped get the industry back on its feet.

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