African Horse Sickness: The Europeans Are On Guard

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African Horse Sickness (AHS) was diagnosed in Spain in 1987-90 and in Portugal in 1989 but was eradicated using slaughter policies, movement restrictions, vector eradication and vaccination. Were it to break out in Europe again, under current vector and climate conditions it is inevitable that it will have a much greater opportunity to establish itself.

In August 2006, Dutch, Belgian and German Authorities officially notified the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) of the occurrence of an outbreak of bluetongue in sheep in their countries.

Several research topics related to midge-borne animal disease are already under study by 21 partner organizations in Europe, around the Mediterranean and in South Africa, the country that discovered bluetongue at the start of the 1900s.

Surveillance of disease circulation is a priority. This is followed by surveillance of the vector insects (trapping and identification, since not all the vectors are known, although researchers say there are "suspect" European species).

The next step will be to analyze the genome of the virus, sequence it and build groups of virus families so as to determine their origin. In fact, there are 24 bluetongue virus serotypes, and the disease serves as a model in studies of emerging diseases. "Infection by one serotype does not protect against the other 23," says researcher Guillaume Gerbier of France-based Medreonet research project, "and to date, we have only recorded eight serotypes around the Mediterranean since the bluetongue epidemic of 1999".

The research partners are currently working closely to monitor the emergence of new serotypes around the Mediterranean and draw up bluetongue surveillance protocols. Researchers are concerned that the disease may recur in the spring. The aim in the medium term is also to set up a joint observatory.

A recent outbreak of equine disease that killed 13 horses in South Africa turned out not to be AHS, as was initially suspected. South Africa only recently had a multi-year ban on horse exports lifted from the last outbreak of AHS there. In spite of the high danger in that country, only about 50 percent of the horses are vaccinated.

Information for this post was gathered from multiple sources and especially the excellent web site of the African Horse Sickness Trust of South Africa. Visiting that web site is an education in itself.

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