It's hard to find good news to report this week, but Franz Venhaus from the Equestrian Federation of Australia (EFA) sent a note today that seems illustrative of the Aussie national character in the face of adversity.
To review: Equine Influenza has never been known on the Australia/New Zealand subcontinent. The horses are not vaccinated and are basically defenseless. EI is believed to have escaped from a Japanese racehorse in quarantine outside Sydney in New South Wales (NSW), perhaps because of lax health procedures in personnel who contact horses outside the quarantine station as well as within it.
The disease showed up in some horses from Sydney at an event near the Hunter Valley breeding center (Think: the Ocala of Australia), about four hours' drive from Sydney. By the time it was recognized, horses from the event had returned home to points all over eastern Australia. Many continued to a World Cup qualifier horse trials in Warwick in southern Queensland (get out your map of Australia!).
Once EI was diagnosed, the government of New South Wales imposed a mandatory lockdown of racing, showing, and transporting horses or horse feed, bedding, etc. Not even empty horse trailers could be on the road. Racehorses weren't even allowed out on the tracks to train for fear of contact. That NSW ban was quickly followed by a nationwide ban, and many countries closed their doors to horses that had been in Australia. New Zealand in particular was wary, and still is.
Imagine the disappointment of riders trying to qualify for the World Cup and/or the 2008 Olympics when their big event was cancelled. Imagine their reaction when told that the 300 horses could not compete but that they couldn't leave, either.
Franz writes in his email today:
"About 250 horses are stilled stranded at Warwick in southern Queensland (QLD), following the cancellation of the World Cup Eventing qualifier and of associated competitions.
"Our President, Geoff Sinclair, and I happened to be at the venue for the event and assisted organisers and Queensland state officials to manage the crisis. FEI vet Julian Willmore did an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances.
"In the meantime, the Qld Government has pulled out all stops to assist with the situation and under State emergency legislation has turned the site into a self-countained mini-city ("Morgantown") with portable classrooms for the school children there, paying for all feed, veterinary and other horse care, employing the vets on site, providing three meals a day and setting up an emergency fund of $20,000, which is managed by the local council.
"The town of Warwick has rallied to provide additional food and other items and is raising more money to assist.
"Our thanks and congratulations for such a marvellous effort!"
It sounds like Gilligan's Island, outback-style.
Meanwhile, the disease has spread to the beautiful racetrack at Randwick, in suburban Sydney, where eight horses have tested positive and one horse has died. About 700 horses are in training there, and the disease is expected to spread quickly through them. Until today, all cases had been in the pleasure horse community, except for the quarantine horses.
According to the figures reported by the Australian Broadcast Corporation, 488 horses on 41 properties are infected with horse flu in NSW and a further 1646 animals suspected of having the virus.
It's still winter in Australia (although Queensland is semi-tropical) and the breeding season is about to begin. One of the world's greatest stakes race, the Melbourne Cup, is coming up.
Or so they hope.