There are several equine diseases that have, for many years, been seen as ‘exotic’ and consequently of no threat to British horses. However, a number of factors, including climate change and an increase in the international movement of horses, have meant that the likelihood of these diseases entering Britain has increased and the risk, while still small, must be taken more seriously.
It’s important that we are ready if these diseases appear, and so the BHS has been campaigning to raise horse owners’ awareness and working with the Government to ensure we are as prepared as possible. The three diseases seen as the greatest threat are African Horse Sickness (AHS), West Nile Virus (WNV) and Equine Infectious Anaemia (EIA).
In 2007, outbreaks of Bluetongue were reported in the UK, affecting sheep and cattle (Bluetongue does not affect horses). Bluetongue is a vector-borne disease and requires a midge to carry and then transmit the virus to susceptible animals.
The fact that the midge entered, survived and transmitted the disease in the UK has triggered much of the concern regarding the threat of exotic diseases. Both AHS and WNV are vector-borne diseases and involve midges and mosquitoes respectively. EIA can also be transmitted to other horses via biting flies and very rarely mosquitoes.
The British Horse Society is a member of the African Horse Sickness Working Group. Many organisations including the government, scientists and the equine industry now seriously acknowledge that there is a need to prepare for the appearance of these diseases. This Group was established to identify issues where lobbying and campaigning to government may benefit UK horses. The Welfare Department is also committed to raising awareness and educating horse owners and keepers about these diseases.
Although we consider it important for everyone involved with horses to be aware of exotic diseases and their signs, there is absolutely no need for undue alarm or panic. No-one is suggesting that an outbreak of these diseases is likely to arrive here tomorrow. Indeed, it may take many years or just never happen.
What is important is that veterinary surgeons, horse owners/keepers and yard managers are familiar with the diseases, so that if they should arrive in Britain, they can be identified quickly, minimising the potential devastation they could cause.