The confirmed outbreak of Bluetongue disease in a cow on a farm in England is a sharp reminder that African Horse Sickness (AHS) could strike the UK at any time. Experts with the Horse Trust warn that the impact of this disease on the horse industry would be devastating.
It is significant that the outbreak is just over the North Sea from Belgium, where recent outbreaks of Bluetongue have been reported, and very close to the cradle of the British horse racing industry at Newmarket.
African Horse Sickness is the same virus family as Bluetongue and is transmitted by the same species of biting midges. Paul Jepson, Chief Executive and Veterinary Director of The Horse Trust said, "At the moment there is no evidence that African Horse Sickness exists anywhere in Europe and, although it has the same potential as Bluetongue to reach the UK, there is no cause for panic."
Jepson will outline the threat when he speaks at the Thoroughbred Racing and Breeding Seminar at Cheltenham racecourse today.
African Horse Sickness is a much more dramatic disease than Bluetongue and infected horses are usually severely ill, with a very high mortality rate. All infected animals are required to be slaughtered to limit spread of the disease.
The Horse Trust is working to develop strategies for monitoring, prevention and control of the disease. The approach of winter should produce a reduction in the midge population and potential spread of the disease.
Scientists believe global warming and the known presence of relevant midges in the UK now makes an AHS outbreak more likely. AHS was diagnosed in Spain between 1987 and 1990 and in Portugal in 1989 but was eradicated using slaughter policies, movement restrictions, vaccination and midge control
Live vaccines are available in South Africa, where AHS is endemic, but these vaccines are not licensed for use in Europe. The Horse Trust wants similar development of AHS vaccines in Europe as is now taking place for bluetongue.
It is hoped that a safe and effective vaccine will become available for use in controlling an outbreak of African Horse Sickness in the future.