Disease outbreaks in India tend to show numbers incomprehensible to our American sensibilities. The country has had to deal with bird flu in recent years but now a large outbreak of Equine Influenza (EI or “horse flu”) is causing chaos as the Amarnath Yatra religious festival brings thousands of pilgrims to a site high in the Himalayas. The problem is that the area–and the horses– are infected with EI.
Equine Influenza is a relatively minor illness in horses, but it is highly contagious. In horses that are weak, the disease can have devastating secondary effects such as strangles.
Organizers of the religious festival bring in hundreds or maybe even thousands of horses and ponies to carry the pilgrims up in the mountains. Way up into the mountains. The world’s highest mountains.
The Indian army has set up a horse veterinary camp, where they have treated an amazing 600 horses in the past two days and provided medications at no charge. Treatment includes helping horses with respiratory problems caused by the flu with what the government’s press release describes as an antiseptic inhalation chamber.
The festival celebrates a holy cave high in the mountains, at 14,500 feet. Horses and ponies are one of the preferred methods to get to the festival, although some people walk…and others get lifts in helicopters.
It’s interesting that the ponywallahs, or wranglers, charge the pilgrims to ride according to how much the rider weighs.
The Indian government is now worried about what will happen when the two-month festival ends and the pilgrims (and horses) disperse.
When Equine Influenza hit India in 1987, an estimated 83,000 horses became sick and a large percentage died. The outbreak was blamed on a shipment of racehorses from France, since local horses had no exposure to the disease.
India is home to almost two million equids, most of whom are working animals in the northern zones.
No Indian nationals qualified for the 2008 Olympic equestrian events in Hong Kong. Australia’s EI outbreak of 2007 almost prevented that country’ participation because of Hong Kong’s very strict import and disease control regulations.