Veterinarians Making Progress on National Equine Health Plan

Equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy (EHM) put dozens of show horses at risk for infection after they were exposed to a sick horse at a single competitive event in Utah in 2011. Unaware of the exposures, owners of these horses dispersed the show animals to 19 states and several Canadian provinces, unleashing the potential to infect others in epidemic proportions. But prompt recognition and rapid response of regulatory, state, and veterinary agencies curbed the impact of an outbreak which killed at least 13 horses and could have proved far more deadly for the North American horse population.

This situation and others like it spurred the American Horse Council and USDA to create a National Equine Health Plan (NEHP), designed to aid authorities in equine disease surveillance and to make recommendations about implementing biosecurity measures. One of the critical parts of the NEHP to help control and limit an epidemic is provision for excellent communication strategies, which includes a national resource for disease information. During the "current controversies" session at the 2013 American Association of Equine Practitioners' (AAEP) Convention, held Dec. 7-11 in Nashville, Tenn., Nat White, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, of the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, reported on the progress of putting this plan into action.

White said the NEHP's objective is to establish a horse-industry sponsored equine disease communication center (EDCC). The plan includes a decision tree that facilitates communications about infectious diseases between federal and state officials and all segments of the equine industry.

An AAEP task force designed the EDCC to operate like a triage system for incoming information about disease outbreaks. Once the EDCC is operational, White said, in the event of a disease outbreak, the center will seek up-to-date and accurate information from state animal health officials, who in turn will keep EDCC notified about outbreak status. Representatives within the EDCC will verify all information before notifying the press and the public. White hopes the EDCC website will aid in rapid dissemination of this information and immediate communication with USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, and state animal health websites. Additionally, email distribution lists to horse industry organizations will help decrease the spread of any disease outbreak. The EDCC will also use email and social media to communicate to the press and horse industry organizations, in an attempt to limit the amount of circulating misinformation.

“Without facts and communications, it is easy for the rumor mill to take over and end up shutting down horse operations and events unnecessarily,” says White.

White said the United States Equestrian Federation will serve as the EDCC’s call center and will host the website. The EDCC will hire personnel to coordinate and verify information and implement communications. AAEP members will be available for consultation about medical facts and biosecurity, and he added that the website will include links to information about equine diseases from knowledgeable experts.

White said EDCC’s role is vital to the economic health of the equine industry. Armed with accurate and timely information, he concluded, horse owners, veterinarians, and animal health officials will be able to work together to mitigate disease outbreaks.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.