Below is a Q & A designed to give as much information as is currently possible in relation to the current outbreak of Equine Influenza
Our main priority is to do all we can to prevent the spread of the equine influenza virus and to protect the welfare of our horses. We stopped racing today to restrict horse movements. When we have received the results of further tests, we will make a decision on racing over the next few days. That is likely to be by early evening, but it is important that we are led by the scientific evidence and follow established protocols for dealing with infectious diseases. We ask trainers and owners, in particular, to be patient and thank them for their support.
How serious is this strain of equine influenza? Is it likely to prove fatal or is it a mild form?
It is a requirement that all racehorses be vaccinated against flu, as this is an important barrier preventing spread of the virus and will mitigate the impact. However, the presence of the virus in vaccinated horses demonstrates that it’s not completely effective against this strain. The disease may be serious in unvaccinated horses, although symptoms in vaccinated horses are usually mild and transient. Symptoms may include a raised temperature, a cough and nasal discharge, and a horse’s performance is affected. It is highly contagious.
What symptoms have appeared in the cases detected yesterday? Are they serious?
They are showing typical signs of mild infection, i.e. nasal discharge, cough, raised temperature. There is nothing to suggest that these particular cases are unusually serious, but implications for the wider horse population and horse movement are potentially serious and we must prevent further spread of the infection as quickly as possible.
What’s the treatment for infected horses?
Much the same as for human flu. Rest, and other medications for symptoms as needed. Anyone with concerns about their horse or horses is advised to contact their vet immediately.
How long does the flu last?
In vaccinated horses, typically 24-48 hours, though with performance potentially affected for several days, or sometimes weeks. If a horse is unvaccinated, it can range between 2 – 10 days.
Is there any risk to human health from the equine influenza virus?
There is no known human health risk associated with the virus.
How did the virus arrive in this country and how has it spread?
We are working to identify the most likely source of the outbreak but we have not confirmed this yet. We expect there is a link between this outbreak and other recent outbreaks elsewhere in Europe.
When did you first know about this strain and what did you do?
We first became aware of the European outbreak in December 2018 and notices were issued by the BHA in relation to this. Trainers were advised to vaccinate any horses which had not been vaccinated in the previous six months and were reminded of the appropriate biosecurity precautions.
Should you have taken steps to stop foreign horses coming into the UK or British horses going overseas where they might risk picking up the infection?
This is a wider horse population issue, not a racing specific one. Equine influenza is endemic in the UK. Whilst the racehorse population is vaccinated, and owners of other horses often choose to vaccinate their horses, up to 70% of horses in UK may be unvaccinated. Stopping movement of foreign horses would therefore be unlikely to prevent spread of disease in this country. Whilst racehorses don’t generally mix with other horses in their stables or on racecourses, situations inevitably arise where they may come into contact with unvaccinated horses.
What restrictions on movement are in place now?
Trainers whose horses may have come into contact with affected horses will be contacted today and will need to quarantine all horses in the yard. This means that these horses must have no contact with any other equines (e.g. separate lots on gallops) until restrictions are lifted. This is likely to be until samples have been taken from horses and negative test results received.
What steps have you taken since you were notified of the outbreak yesterday evening?
The first step was to call off racing. We have also stopped some Irish horses from returning home after racing in Britain on 6 February. These horses are now in quarantine. We have put restrictions in place on horses from yards likely to have been in contact with horses from affected yards. Testing of all horses on stopped yards is taking place, funded by the Levy Board.
What’s your advice to trainers?
a) If they think their animals may be infected?
b) If they want to protect their animals from infection?
Immediately isolate any animals who may be infected. They should contact their vet as soon as possible to arrange testing. All confirmed cases must be reported immediately to the BHA.
What should be done about race entries and declarations?
Entries and declarations can be made as usual until advice is given to the contrary. Trainers in affected or potentially affected yards will be contacted with specific guidance.
How should trainers get in touch if they have any concerns?
Their first contact should be with their vet if they have any concerns. The National Trainers’ Federation have an excellent code of practice on their website which documents all the steps trainers should be taking. We are working closely with them.
What is the advice to people working with racehorses?
Everyone should be vigilant and alert to possible clinical signs. They should put increased biosecurity measures in place – as a minimum, hand washing and change of clothes should be required on arrival at any yard.
What is the advice to owners of other horses not part of the racing industry?
We can’t speak on behalf of other equestrian sports or the leisure industry, but the general advice if anyone has any concerns is to contact their vet.
When will the ban on racing be lifted? Might it be lifted partially in some areas of the country?
We will issue a further update on racing fixtures as soon as possible. For fixtures on Friday 8 February, and the weekend of 9-10 February, we expect to provide an update this evening (7 February).
How serious might this be? Could this be as bad as the outbreak that hit Australia in 2007?
The situation in Australia was very different. The virus is not endemic in Australia and horses were not vaccinated and had no immunity to the virus. As such, we would not expect an outbreak here to be as serious or significant.
Did you have contingency measures in place for dealing with this kind of outbreak?
Yes, these include the measures enacted in the last 24 hours. We will continue to put restrictions on racing and the movement of horses as appropriate.
Have you been in contact with DEFRA/Welsh/Scottish governments? What’s their role in managing this outbreak?
While Equine influenza is not a notifiable disease in the UK and therefore not controlled by Government, we will be in touch with Defra to advise them of the situation and the actions being taken.
Could the Cheltenham Festival be under threat?
It is far too early to say. In general, we would not expect the situation to be as bad as in Australia in 2007, when racing was stopped for an extended period, as British horses are vaccinated and the virus is endemic in the UK. The situation is very different in Australia where the virus is not endemic and horses and not vaccinated.
How many horses will you swab – and how, when and why?
A vet would take a nasal swab. We will be swabbing all horses from in-contact yards tomorrow, as testing is most reliable 48 hours after likely/possible exposure. In general, swabs are taken if symptoms are identified. We recommend that owners or trainers immediately contact their vet to arrange this. All swabs for racehorses are paid for by Levy Board funding.
Rumours are circulating that particular yards have been affected. Can you confirm which yards have been affected?
We’re not going to identify any specific yard affected, but we did need to confirm at the earliest opportunity that the yard concerned had runners at Ayr and Ludlow on Wednesday 6 February, and/or at Wolverhampton on Monday 4 February, so that other trainers could take appropriate action immediately. However, we wish to emphasise that horses in the affected yard had been vaccinated. We would strongly request media and other members of the public to stay away from any yard they believe to be affected, as this could risk further spread of the flu virus.
If this can be identified through visible signals, should the trainer have identified this her/himself? Could the trainer have done more to prevent the spread in her/his yard?
A cough and nasal discharge are common respiratory signs seen in horses and the majority of cases would not be equine influenza. Under rules, trainers are not required to report these symptoms and therefore movement is not stopped until we are aware there is a confirmed influenza result.
You have been aware of the outbreak for weeks, could you have done more to prevent this? Should racing have been shut down earlier?
BHA have made efforts to communicate to all trainers and other participants that an outbreak was occurring in Europe. It would have been disproportionate to shut down racing, based on the evidence available at that stage. The decision to stop racing made within hours of the confirmed outbreak on 6 February.