by Christa Lesté-Lasserre
Three months after Australia’s first-ever outbreak of equine influenza, an independent inquiry into the history and management of the outbreak is uncovering troubling flaws in the government’s quarantine procedures, according to recently published inquiry transcripts.
Ignored warnings, procrastinated meetings, absent work instructions, and a lack of managerial responsibility were only some of the problems leading up to the epidemic, according to the ongoing inquiry, which opened Nov. 13.
Led by retired High Court Justice Ian Callinan, the inquiry staff have conducted interviews with 250 people and collected more than 30,000 documents in preparation for the hearings. Since the start of the inquiry, Callinan has interrogated leaders from the government-run Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service and the Eastern Creek quarantine center. The index case, a stallion imported from Ireland, tested positive at Eastern Creek 10 days after his arrival in Australia.
The virus infected 40,000 horses in the first nine weeks of the outbreak.
AQIS executive manager Jennifer Gordon conceded when testifying that she ignored warnings from senior New South Wales veterinarian Phillip Widders. In 2003, Widders told her about the quarantine procedures he considered vital to reducing the risks of a flu outbreak, including requiring all personnel to shower and change clothes following contact with imported horses. Though much talk was made of setting up a meeting with Widders, no meeting ever occurred, according to the recorded testimony.
AQIS national manager David Ironside, in charge of live animal imports and post-arrival quarantines, admitted not following up on requests for work instructions from the Eastern Creek station manager. Though he sent a copy by e-mail, Ironside explained that he never verified the instructions were received or followed.
“I had no reason to believe that the procedures were not being followed,” he said during the hearings.
Dr. James Gilkerson, the inquiry’s first expert witness, testified that, given the five-day incubation period of the virus, the Irish stallion Encosta De Lago could not have arrived with the disease but would have acquired it during quarantine. “If adequate procedures were followed, the disease would have stayed in the quarantine center,” Gilkerson said.
Eradicating the disease is not impossible, though it will require ongoing, thorough surveillance over a period of a few years, according to Dr. Tom Chambers, head of the OIE international influenza reference laboratory at the University of Kentucky Gluck Equine Research Center in Lexington.
“They’re taking every intelligent course of action to minimize the risk,” Chambers said. “But as long as Australia is a part of the international horse network, it’s not going to be zero risk.”
Equine influenza is a highly contagious respiratory disease with a low mortality rate. Vaccinations can help reduce clinical signs and morbidity but do not necessarily prevent the disease.