Tense Weekend in New Zealand as US Horse Imports (Falsely) Test Positive for Disease in Quarantine

Ever wonder what it would be like to see the international horse world instantly freeze in its own hoofprints? Is there anything that is more of a threat to the upcoming equestrian sports of the Beijing Olympics than the worldwide protests against human rights violations in China and the political situation in Tibet?

The answer is “yes” and it almost happened last weekend.

I held my breath before reporting on this story because it was THAT big news and I didn’t want to start any panic or rumors.

Here’s what happened: A group of horses traveling to New Zealand from the USA underwent routine disease testing on their arrival in Auckland last week. So far, this is normal.

If you have ever been to that wonderful tiny island nation as a human traveler, you know that they don’t exactly welcome you with open arms. No, inspectors come on board your plane as soon as it lands and spray the whole thing down. Including you. Including the overhead bins. Including the plane itself. An island nation that depends on agriculture for its place on the world map can’t afford to let a potentially dangerous virus, a fly, a caterpillar or anything else into their country. And you’d better not have any food in your luggage when you go through customs.

Somehow, New Zealand managed to dodge the Equine Influenza (EI) outbreak in eastern Australia last fall–an outbreak that shut down showing, rodeos, breeding and racing and cost the nation an estimated AUS$1 billion. The Kiwis protected themselves by slamming shut their doors and re-dedicating themselves to strict quarantine protocols. Lax quarantine procedures are being blamed for the leak of EI into the general horse population in Australia.

The American horses that landed last week must have sent the ag inspectors into orbit when their tests came back positive for EI. Of course, the horses had tested negative before leaving the USA. Give credit to the Kiwis’ Biosecurity New Zealand agency, though, for deciding that a re-test was needed to confirm the results.

And the re-test showed that an error had occured and the samples had been contaminated by human error. The horses were not infected with EI, and their quarantine proceeded as usual.

Under import health standards, horses are required to undergo 21 days of quarantine before departure for New Zealand, including testing and vaccination, and a further 14 days in post-arrival quarantine in New Zealand, where they undergo further testing. Such stringent requirements are in place to ensure that horses entering New Zealand do not carry diseases like equine influenza.

But what if they had tested positive? An outbreak of disease in horses in Europe, the USA, or Australia/New Zealand could have a disastrous domino effect on international horse transport for racing, breeding and showing, and especially for the prospects of the Olympics coming up August.

Consider this: New Zealand is the only racing nation in the world that is free of EI.

Spin the globe and get another viewpoint: African Horse Sickness (AHS) killed more than 130 horses in South Africa this winter and is having a disastrous effect on horse exports there, as it has been for the past few years. Horses from South Africa ran away with two of the big races at the Dubai World Cup a few weeks ago, but breeders and trainers there would have a tough time selling horses anywhere right now.

Keep an eye on this blog. From now until the Olympics I will keep you posted on the world map of contagious horse diseases. It’s a map that many health officials in Hong Kong are watching carefully.

Luckily, I live near Harvard University, where the International Society for Infectious Diseases runs its worldwide health monitoring system. I will be using their data reports, sifting through reports on diseases affecting monkeys and water buffalo and swans (not to mention humans) for news on horse disease outbreaks and other health issues that might threaten the Olympics. They provide a terrific service and I will pass on any news “as it happens”.

At this point, I think that world politics are a much bigger threat to the Olympics than horse diseases. Please read the papers, listen to NPR, and scour good international news sources on the web (I recommend Reuters’ News Agency excellent Olympics-specialty news channel) to take the pulse of world politics and sports politics. Tibet may not have an equestrian team but the plight of that beleagured nation can and will affect the horses that are out there schooling for selection trials to go to Hong Kong.

I am old enough to remember the ill-fated 1980 Olympics. At that time, the old US Equestrian Team’s eventing training center was located down the road here on Boston’s North Shore. How well I remember the heartbreak when the US team and coach Jack LeGoff were told that they would not be allowed to follow up their success at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, because the USA cancelled plans to participate in the Moscow Olympics for political reasons.

The Olympics are not just about sports. Please read the news with that in mind, and keep healthy horses on your wish list.




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