When a horse contracts a disease, the owner or caretaker usually focuses solely on getting the horse healthy again and protecting others on the farm from illness. But in reality, certain ailments could have community-, region-, and even industry-wide effects. For instance, an equine viral arteritis or contagious equine metritis outbreak could shutter the breeding industry, or a major equine influenza or equine herpesvirus (EHV-1) outbreak could spell disaster for the competition world. Two industry organizations are seeking to abate these risks, leading the charge to comprehensively track and provide information on equine disease threats.
On March 28 the American Horse Council (AHC) and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) issued a letter to the horse industry regarding equine disease outbreaks in the United States. In this communication, the organizations outlined current horse health issues facing the industry and sought equine community participation in developing a National Equine Health Plan (NEHP), which includes an Equine Disease Communication Center (EDCC).
According to AAEP representative Nathaniel A. White II, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, professor of surgery at Virginia Tech's Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center, in Leesburg, when it comes to communication plans for disease outbreaks, the horse industry is fragmented: "Other livestock groups already have health and communication plans for disease outbreaks. The United States Animal Health Association and Veterinary Services, which is part of the (USDA) American and Plant Health Inspection Service, agree that a communication plan for horses is needed to help protect horse health and the industry. Working together with state animal health officials and USDA, the horse industry will be able to better monitor and prevent the spread of diseases which threaten horse health and the economic health of the industry."
To overcome communication roadblocks and create an equine disease tracking system, White said that AHC, AAEP, and USDA officials first explored the idea for the NEHP during the 2010 AHC meeting in a workshop focused on emerging equine diseases.
White explained, "From that meeting, the AHC initiated a draft of the NEHP which, 1) would protect the health and welfare of the U.S. equine industry; 2) establish the role of industry, federal, and state authorities in dealing with an outbreak; 3) facilitate continued interstate and international movement of horses; 4) ensure the availability of diagnostic, inspection, and certification services; and 5) protect the economic viability of the equine industry. Part of the plan outlined included sections on biosecurity and communications."
White said the need for such a plan was underscored in 2011 when an EHV-1 outbreak unfolded at a national cutting horse competition in Ogden, Utah; the outbreak ultimately impacted horses in 10 states, according to the USDA's final situation report, and many more horses residing in several Canadian provinces (though EHV-1 is not a reportable disease in Canada). That outbreak also highlighted a need for a more effective communication system for infectious disease information, he noted.
"Rumors about the disease circulated rapidly, creating concerns throughout the U.S.," White said. "Based on the need for future veterinary involvement the Association of American Equine Practitioners created a task force to make recommendations for a system of communications, which would help provide timely and reliable information to veterinarians and horse owners during an outbreak. Furthermore, the task force examined the available information about biosecurity measures which could be initiated at events to help prevent infectious diseases and help halt the disease transmission."
White said the task force recommended forming the EDCC to monitor horse health risks and collect and distribute information about disease outbreaks; it also suggested developing a protocol for updating the media about disease outbreaks, he said.
"The communication center will also provide information about specific diseases and biosecurity, which can be used by owners and organizers of horse activities to help prevent disease transmission," he said.
Once functioning, White said, the NEHP and EDCC will monitor and disseminate information about all infectious diseases that affect horses, paying special attention to highly contagious diseases.
Based on discussions with "individuals in many of the horse organizations and state animal health officials," White said, the response to the plan has been "universally positive."
He noted that industry leaders will focus discussion and planning sessions during the AHC's 2013 National Issues Forum, scheduled for June 16-19 in Washington, D.C., on the NEHP and EDCC. But in the meantime, "The main goal is to garner support for the project, which will require funding from the industry," he said.
Organizers have requested horse owner feedback on what type of information they would like to know during an outbreak and the best way for the EDCC to deliver that information. White said owners can send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"This is … a critical program needed to help prevent the spread of highly infectious diseases … which pose an ever-present threat to the horse industry," White said.
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.