Emergency: Preparedness Key to Equine Disease Surprises

Maybe you don't often think about what you would do in the event you're impacted by an equine disease. Well, maybe you should think about it, and begin taking preventative measures.

"It's like flying an airplane," said Dr. Marvin Beeman, chairman of the American Horse Council Health and Regulatory Committee. "You can have hours of routine flying, and then have minutes of total terror."

Beeman moderated a panel discussion Monday titled "Equine Health: From Local Disease to National Disaster," the theme of the AHC's fall convention in Arlington, Va. Presentations touched on the importance of communication in the event of disease, and preparation of an emergency plan, even on a farm-to-farm basis.

Dr. Beth Lautner of the National Pork Producers Council recommended a strategic plan to combat disease-related disasters. She also revealed statistics that indicate there's some work to be done. A 1999 self-assessment survey of states showed that 37% had no written action plan; 50% had no plan for industry, state, and federal communication; and 58% had no emergency plan for foreign animal disease containment in local laboratories.

Lautner is involved with the National Animal Health Emergency Management Steering Committee, which was formed in 1996 and developed a model for procedures, schedules workshops, and has meetings with representatives of other countries that depend upon exports.

Foreign animal disease has become a major concern because of frequent international travel by tourists, producers, and veterinarians; an increase in imported products; the illegal importation of products and animals; and bioterrorism, or the intentional introduction of an agent.

Dr. Joe Annelli, chief of emergency programs for veterinary services for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the United States Department of Agriculture, noted that a key ingredient to emergency management is the dry run. Practice makes perfect.

"When we run a test exercise, there's always something we didn't think about that pops up," Annelli said. "When you leave here, we hope you'll be thinking, 'What am I doing for my barn?' "

An informal poll of attendees at the AHC panel discussion indicated about 50% believe their personal veterinarian knows what to do and who to contact in case of an emergency.

They were given an emergency management survey for equine associations and state horse councils, information from which will be used to prepare industry standards.

Equine disease obviously has serious ramifications. Beeman, for example, posed a scenario that could affect the Thoroughbred industry, in particular a Keeneland auction where thousands of horses are sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. "It's somewhat frightening to think (the sale) could be shut down if we have some (disease) invasion, or if we don't have the right communication measures in place."

Another high-profile event is the Breeders' Cup. Pamela Blatz-Murff, director of racing and nominations for the Breeders' Cup and a member of the AHC's Health and Regulatory Committee, said Breeders' Cup has an emergency plan in place. It runs the gamut from strict quarantine procedures for international horses to the disinfecting of stalls before horses ship to various host tracks.

"We've never had an emergency or disease on the backstretch at the Breeders" Cup, but we do have a plan if we did," Blatz-Murff said. "We know what to do if there is something that comes into play."

Blatz-Murff said private, state, and federal veterinarians are on call to address any incident. Because of the international connection, she works closely with the USDA.

For horse farm owners, it was suggested they take "biosecurity" measures that include some type of 30-day quarantine for new arrivals, limited access to various parts of a farm, and veterinary examinations for new arrivals. The points of exposure for disease are numerous -- they include the racetrack, horse vans, feed, water supplies, and even something as simple as a trail ride.

"The advent of the introduction of diseases to the U.S. is a much larger problem than it used to be," Beeman said. "A good example is the West Nile virus. It served as a wake-up call for us to pay good, specific, aggressive attention to the invasion of an agent into our livestock population."

• Strengthen partnerships and networks
• Reinforce federal, state, and industry coordination
• Support animal disease research and diagnostics
• Improve monitoring and surveillance, with international and domestic
• Expand training, education, and public awareness
• Build a national preparedness and response infrastructure
• Develop emergency preparedness and response contingency plans