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African Horse Sickness Threat to UK

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    Posted: August 04 2018 at 2:15pm

African Horse Sickness could wipe out nine in 10 of Britain’s horses if it reaches UK

A deadly disease which could wipe out nine in 10 of Britain’s horses could reach UK shores as the climate warms, experts fear.

African Horse Sickness (AHS) which is dubbed the ‘Armageddon’ of animal diseases because it has a 95 per cent mortality rate would be utterly devastating to Britain’s £7 billion equine industry because UK horses have no natural immunity. 

Even if animals were not infected, 60 mile protection zones around stricken stables would effectively put and end to eventing, racing, showing of horses and leisure riding, according to the British Horse Society.

Although there has not been an outbreak in Europe since 1990 in Spain, vets fear that the warming climate and lack of biosecurity measures by importers could allow the disease to move northwards.

The midge which spreads AHS is already in Britain, and there have been recent UK outbreaks of bluetongue in sheep which is related to the AHS virus, proving that it could exist in our climate. 

Experts also fear that infected insects could accidentally travel on commercial aircraft into the country or be blown across from the continent if the disease emerged in Europe again. 

World Horse Welfare Chief Executive, Roly Owers, said: “Exotic disease does present a real risk for the UK’s horse population, and African Horse Sickness (AHS) is certainly the ‘Armageddon’ of diseases due to its extremely high fatality rate plus the fact there is currently no effective vaccine.

“There is a real need for UK horse owners to improve biosecurity which is a vital tool in helping to control all diseases.”

Defra currently views the current risk of AHS reaching the UK as very low and horses exported from Africa are subjected to stringent testing and a lengthy quarantine process, and in the UK we have a specific regulation and control strategy for AHS should an outbreak occur.

However Mr Owers warned that not all owners and breeders were taking the necessary precautions to prevent disease entering Britain.  

“Early results from a survey undertaken by the Equine Disease Coalition show that many horse owners are not undertaking even the most basic biosecurity measures, such as isolation procedures for new arrivals, and this is a real cause for concern,” he said.

Over the last 50 years, outbreaks of AHS outside of Africa have occurred in the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Spain (mid- 1960’s and 1987-90) and Portugal (1989).

African Horse Sickness now forms part of the police’s Exotic Animal Disease guidelines, alongside swine fever, west nile virus, bird flu and foot & mouth.

Gail Sprake, Chair of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust said: “Many of Britain’s rare horse breeds are already in danger of dying out, and there is now the added threat of diseases like African Horse Sickness. These are worrying times for all British horses.”

In guidance issued for owners and breeders, The British Horse Society warned owners to be on the look out for the virus. 

“With climate change and an increase in the international movement of horses there is a possibility that AHS could reach Britain, although the risk is not presently considered to be high,” said the BHS.

“However, were AHS to arrive on these shores it is imperative that it is spotted quickly in order that it can be dealt with rapidly and prevented from spreading.

“It is possible that an AHS outbreak could occur in the UK if the virus were to be imported and, given the severe welfare and economic consequences of AHS, this would have devastating consequences to the naïve UK equine population.”

There is currently no good vaccine against the disease. The main vaccine, which is not licensed in Europe, has in some cases actually caused outbreaks of the disease in Africa

The Equine Disease Coalition, which was established in 2011 to prevent outbreaks in Britain, is currently working towards an improved vaccine.

African horse sickness | Signs of African horse sickness may include:

Swelling and redness around the eyes and elsewhere on the face

Frothing and discharge from nostrils


Slow and heavy breathing


Swollen face

Absence of proof is not proof of absence.
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