During an equine disease outbreak, you want current and accurate information about how to keep your horse safe. Getting that in the Internet age, however, can be tricky. Outdated and inaccurate information can spread with every well-intentioned click of a “share” button, and the true nature of an outbreak and its aftermath can be difficult to discern. The Equine Disease Communication Center (EDCC) is hoping to change that.
A clearinghouse for information on infectious equine disease outbreaks, the EDCC seeks to provide something that can be in short supply during a veterinary crisis: timely, reliable information. The EDCC website, www.equinediseasecc.org, provides updates on cases of herpesvirus, strangles and other infectious diseases based on information from local veterinarians and state animal health officials.
Provided by the U.S. Equestrian Federation, the website has been active since the spring of 2014. But only recently has the EDCC made a concerted effort to reach horse owners through social media. The organization plans to take the outreach even further, including establishing a call center that would allow owners to call in with information or questions about disease occurrences.
“Our goal is to bring outbreak information directly to horse owners as soon as it can be verified and to make it extremely easy for owners to find information that helps them protect their horses when they need it,” says Bailey McCallum, communication manager for the EDCC, which operates out of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) office in Lexington, Kentucky.
FILLING A NEED
Although outreach efforts have ramped up recently, the EDCC started to come together years ago. “The idea really started back in 2010,” says Nat White, DVM, MS, DACVS, director of the EDCC.
“At a meeting I attended between the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] and the American Horse Council, the USDA asked what could be put in place to alert horse owners about infectious disease outbreaks. Soon after that there was an equine herpes outbreak, which gave the issue a bit more urgency. The AAEP stepped up and I was asked to lead a task force looking into possible solutions.”
White’s personal experiences with that 2011 outbreak underscored the need for a reliable source of information for horse owners. “I remember during that herpes outbreak---which happened in Ogden, Utah---I was getting calls within a week in Virginia from people who had heard that our state borders were closed to equine travel. That’s how far and how fast the false rumors had spread.”
From the start, says White, the idea was to create an organization that could provide the horse world with disease alerts and medical information in much the same way the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shares medical information with the general public. “One of the challenges we face is a lack of consistency from state to state regarding disease reports,” says White.
Some equine diseases are designated “reportable” by state law, meaning that veterinarians are obligated to alert state animal health officials about diagnosed cases. Many of these diseases, such as rabies, can also be transmitted to people. A disease that is reportable in one state, however, may not be reportable in another, making it difficult to assemble a complete national database from veterinary reports alone.
“There are efforts underway to make a standardized, national list of recommended reportable equine diseases for each state to follow,” says White, “but that’s a large, complex undertaking that may take a while.”
Before the advent of the EDCC, those interested in information on various outbreaks had to visit state veterinary websites or make phone calls to officials. “That’s a lot of work and, depending on where you live, you might have to call a few different states to gather all the information you need,” says McCallum. “A busy horse owner doesn’t necessarily have that kind of time.” The EDCC is set up to gather, verify and present all of that information in one location.
When outbreaks occur, the EDCC receives information from local officials but may also sift through news and social media reports. “Information is reported directly to us through a variety of channels,” says McCallum. “State veterinary officials and field veterinarians both contact us with information regarding outbreaks. And a big part of my job is to go looking for reports of outbreaks in local media, on industry websites and on social media.”
The nature of an outbreak and the source of the information determine the EDCC’s next steps. “If it’s a reportable disease in that particular state, we need to confirm it directly with state officials,” says McCallum. “We have built relationships with most state veterinary officials, so if it’s a reportable disease we will typically be notified by them directly, hopefully even before a general press release is sent out. We know that if the information comes from a state or USDA animal health official the disease has been confirmed through diagnostic testing; we can then post an alert on the website and notify the industry via social media and email notifications. Our goal is to get the information out as soon as there is a confirmed positive result from a diagnostic lab.”
For a non-reportable disease, information from a practicing veterinarian may suffice, but only if it’s confirmed. “The disease has to have been confirmed by a test at an accredited laboratory,” says White. “We will not be posting information about any suspected outbreaks or cases without confirmation.” With sufficient testing to back up the diagnosis, those alerts are written up and posted as well.
For cases of disease reported by owners or trainers or other independent sources, the verification process is equally rigorous, requiring direct communication with state health officials or veterinarians involved in the case and with the same “accredited laboratory testing” standard. “We want to be timely, but we aren’t going to send out any information that hasn’t been verified,” McCallum says. “And the information we post consists of the facts we know, in terms horse owners can understand with no speculation.”
A recent report illustrates that approach: “On May 24, 2016, late in the evening, a mare at a breeding farm in Cooke County, Texas, was reported to be infected with EHM [equine0 herpes myeloencephalopathy] on PCR0 from a blood sample. The horse began showing acute neuro signs when the test was performed. A quarantine was issued.... A second horse was tested positive on nasal swab on May 25 after showing slight neuro deficits. The affected horses have been isolated and strict biosecurity measures are in place. Temperatures are being monitored and no other fevers or clinical signs have been noted in the barn of 40 horses.”
McCallum adds that the information not included in the alerts is just as carefully considered. “We don’t mention specific veterinarians, private farms, or even specific addresses,” she says. “We don’t want to be disruptive to the industry and, in most cases, that information isn’t needed to protect horses.” The exception, she says, would be public equestrian facilities, such as a large showgrounds or racetracks, which may be named in connection with an outbreak.
After an outbreak is reported, the EDCC posts updates on the situation, including subsequent diagnoses, as well as the imposition and lifting of quarantine orders. “We don’t want to scare or panic people,” says White, “and part of the way you do that is by keeping them up-to-date as the situation changes.”
SPREADING THE WORD
Alerts posted on the EDCC website are only one facet of the organization’s outreach to owners. Alerts are also posted in their entirety to the EDCC Facebook page and can easily be shared from there. Facebook users who “like” the EDCC page will receive alerts from the organization in their news feeds. “Our presence on social media isn’t geared toward gathering ‘likes,’” says McCallum. “We are more interested in sharing to help spread accurate information to as many people as quickly as possible.” The EDCC also tweets out alerts that include a link back to the website for a full report.
Visitors to the EDCC website can sign up for email blasts, which will email new outbreak alerts. “The email blast list used to consist mostly of veterinarians and EDCC stakeholders, but we’ve recently opened it up to allow horse owners to subscribe,” says McCallum. “Owners can get the same information the veterinarians are getting at the same time. The emails are very brief, with the disease and the state in the subject line and a link back to the website with the full report in the body of the text. “
In addition to the alerts, the EDCC site includes other useful information about disease outbreaks, says White. “We have links to information about specific infectious diseases that might be of significance to horse owners, along with information about vaccinations,” says White. “And one of our most valuable resources, I think, is our biosecurity information. It’s not just enough to be aware of outbreaks, but you also need to know what specific steps you can take to protect your horse.” The site also includes contact information for each state’s animal health officials (state veterinarians) and information about the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
The planned EDCC call center will also expand outreach. “The United States Equestrian Federation has offered the phone lines, location and staff,” says McCallum. “We are currently working out the details for it to go live. Horse owners will be able to call in and talk to someone about outbreak reports. The information provided will be the same as on the website, but we realize that some people might prefer to talk to someone to help navigate the situation.”
White says he envisions owners and others within the equine industry using all of this information in various ways. “I’d like owners to come to us first when they hear word of an outbreak in their community,” he says. “I want them to look to us for verification. I also hope that they check the site before they travel, to see if there are any issues in the location they are headed to. And I think we are a very valuable resource for people holding shows and events. They can check out the site to see what is going on in areas horses may be traveling in from. This information isn’t just useful to individual owners, but for racetracks and sales also.”
Despite the years of planning and careful execution that have gone into establishing the EDCC, White says that he’d be happy if the organization isn’t a regular feature in the lives of horse owners. “Most horses are really very healthy, and if you follow prudent biosecurity methods you are really quite safe, even in an outbreak. [The EDCC site] will be there when you need it, but hopefully it’s not used all that much
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #467, August 2016.