Glanders: Rio 2016 Olympic Equestrian Site Latest Hot Spot for World-Stopping Disease

Highly Contagious Zoonotic Disease Still a Threat in Countries like Brazil
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It's probably too soon to write this article, as not all the facts are available. But then again, it might also be too late.

Next week is the test event for the Rio 2016 Olympics in Brazil. And there is some surprise horse health news from the host country that is a cause for serious concern. Or is it?

One of the horse world's oldest health concerns has been in the news again this year. Glanders is a zoonotic disease that can be contracted by humans. It is a serious problem for horses and has been carefully eradicated from Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries. In other parts of the world, it's a disease they don't like to talk about. 

To confuse matters and muddy the oceans that lie between us, the laws affecting notification of glanders outbreaks are not the same in all countries. Countries where there is no trace of the disease want to keep it that way. Countries where the disease exists regret being saddled with regulations.

So far, 2015 has been an active year for glanders, but this weekend's news flare caught everyone's attention, and we're still waiting for answers (in English).

Here's a review of glanders news for 2015:

For the past few months, horses from Germany and other countries have been unable to travel to Australia because of a single case of glanders reported in Germany. Regardless of nationality, if a horse has been in Germany, it is ineligible for import to Australia. Just this week, the travel restriction period expired, although it is still listed as in force on the national import website.

Now we are learning that there has been an outbreak of the dreaded disease in Brazil, either within or adjacent to the Olympic equestrian venue. This week, the International Society for Infectious Diseases (ISID) at Harvard University posted translations of several newspaper articles from Sao Paolo, Brazil suggesting that at least 19 horses are affected by the outbreak, with hundreds more exposed and undergoing tests.

ISID's report conflicts with others that pinpoint two sick horses at the site itself.

ISID's translation from the Portuguese-language newspaper O Globo states, "A week before the Equestrian test event for the Rio 2016 Games, scheduled for 6 Aug 2015, the outbreak can increase, as there are hundreds of horses undergoing tests after finding an outbreak in the Military Deodoro complex sector 4."

The timeline of news so far:

29 June: The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) posts a report on the status of the glanders outbreak in Germany, which it said had been resolved as of January 27. The end of the six-month closed period for the country was completed at the end of June; no cause for the one case was ever found. "In accordance with Article 12.10.2 of the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code Germany declares itself free of glanders with effect of 14 June 2015." OIE has not had another post on glanders since 29 June.

14 July: Sydney Morning News reports on glanders effects on racing and equestrian sports there; the paper publishes a detailed report on the difficulties in Australia for horses hoping to compete in fall horse races like the Melbourne Cup, or sport horses that have been purchased or competed in Europe this winter or spring. A single case of glanders in Germany meant that Australia is closed to horses from Germany or that have been in Germany. In spite of the expiration of the six-month wait since a case was announced, Australia is not required to immediately lift the travel ban; reporter Scott Roots notes that "government protocols have to be followed before the travel ban can be lifted and the Department of Agriculture is not expected to decide how to proceed with the matter until next month."

26 July: Dilmun Times reports that a state-of-the-art equine hospital may be built in Bahrain as a result of the country's recent successful handling of an outbreak of glanders. First Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sport (SCYS) and President of the Bahrain Royal Equestrian and Endurance Federation Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa has requested a proposal for a hospital, according to the article; the hospital was also suggested in a national press release in 2011. Also mentioned: Bahrain has a body called the "National Anti-Glanders Committee".

27 July: A report in O Globo newspaper in Brazil announces that Brazilian equestrian authorities are under criticism for not reporting an outbreak of glanders earlier this year and, in particular, that the disease affected two horses at the Deodaro stables, meaning hundreds of horses there had been exposed. The Olympic equestrian center has been in a quarantine-like situation since February, according to the article. 

"Possible spread of glanders threatens preparation for Rio 2016 and makes government send examples to Europe" reads the headline of the article, which states that the Ministry of Agriculture plans to test more than 500 horses on the grounds.

To complicate matters further, O Globo reported that Brazilian test results for glanders are unreliable, so samples were sent to Germany for verification. However, the newspaper said that the government agency stopped responding to press inquiries about the matter.

This week, 72 international equestrian governing body and sport representatives are expected to visit Deodaro for the Olympic test event, which will use all Brazilian horses.

28 July: Donna Bowater, a British journalist working in Brazil reporting for The Telgraph and others tweeted that the glanders outbreak in Brazil is a threat to the Olympics. 

28 July: The Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture (MAP) issued a press release insisting that the outbreak at Deodoro "is not an epidemic." This release states clearly that only one horse at the site actually tested positive for glanders. In Sao Paolo, however, 17 horses are isolated with positive test results for glanders. Some of these horses are from Rio de Janeiro, it states. After some type of research is completed, these horses will be euthanized. In closing, the release assures the media that "the MAP has spoken out about and kept the international health authorities informed of the episode, which does not compromise the test event planned for next week, nor the equestrian tournaments of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (2016) in Military Complex Deodoro."

1 August: The New York Times reports that sailing officials have come face to face with publicity over a test of water in Guanabara Bay, where events will be held; an Associated Press evaluation found high levels of human sewage in the water. The medical director for the International Olympic Committee insists there is no threat to human health.

2 August: An article in the Sunday edition of the New Zealand Heraldreports that national equestrian officials there are shocked to learn of the outbreak in Rio. Equestrian high performance director Sarah Dalziell was quoted as saying, "We would have expected to have heard about it when they found the first outbreak, in all honesty, and what they were doing to manage it in the lead-up to the test event." She criticized both the Rio 2016 Committee and the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) for not notifying national sporting bodies. Herald reporter Laura McQuillan, reporting from Rio, states that the pre-existence of the disease in Brazil alters the requirement to report the disease and that two horses at the site believed to have glanders had been euthanized in April. The horses had since tested negative for the disease but the test results were not considered reliable.

Some historical perspective:

New Zealand, coincidentally, has always had a great respect for glanders, and all horse diseases. Health officials feared that soldiers returning from the Boer War in South Africa in 1904 might carry the active bacteria with them, as noted in the Annual Report of the Department of Agriculture for New Zealand that year.

New Zealand, coincidentally, has always had a great respect for glanders, and all horse diseases. Health officials feared that soldiers returning from the Boer War in South Africa in 1904 might carry the active bacteria with them, as noted in the Annual Report of the Department of Agriculture for New Zealand that year.

3 August: In what could be seen as a potentially hopeful sign for horse diseases like glanders, sailing and triathalon--which requires swimming in polluted harbor water--received a boost from the World Health Organization, which pledged to work with Brazilian universities on testing and cleanup plans for the next year to improve water quality before the Olympics. 

Couldn't a coalition of universities and health officials be formed to put everyone at ease about the threat of glanders? We all remember that the Seoul and Hong Kong Olympics scared some horse owners from allowing their animals to be transported so far. Fear of disease coupled with a long trip to Brazil might make an owner have second thoughts as well.

5 August (update): More international news reports are surfacing about both the risks to sailing and swimming competitors and about the glanders risk. However, comments from national equestrian federations, competitors, veterinarians or officials are hard to find.

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