Flu Boosters

In August it was six months since Phoenix’s last flu vaccination. Despite there still being an abnormally high number of equine flu cases in the UK in 2019 it’s dropped from most people’s radar. Every so often I hear of a case nearby, but it soon blows over.

Back in February the equestrian population was advised to ensure their horse had been vaccinated within the last six months as that was when vets had started using a vaccine effective against this strain of flu.

A lot of competition venues, yards, training centres started enforcing that all horses had to have been vaccinated within six or twelve months. There was a discrepancy between requirements which meant lots of double checking before entering a competition. And it has helped reduce the spread of equine flu.

Some places have relaxed their rules from six monthly vaccinations to annual. British Dressage require competing horses to have had their most recent booster within twelve months, whilst British Eventing requires it to be within six months. British Riding Clubs have tightened their already stringent vaccination checks, which has competitors quaking in their boots at area qualifiers.

Phoenix was due her annual vaccination in February, so she was done then and I pushed all thought of boosters from my mind as we weren’t doing much. In August I squeezed in a cross country schooling session as a centre two days before her six months were up. Then I was in a quandary, unsure what to do. I didn’t need to vaccinate her at six months; my vets weren’t recommending to given that she’d had a booster since the initial outbreak. They felt that annual vaccinations provided enough cover. If we weren’t going out anywhere other than local hacking then I’d feel that annual vaccinations will suffice. I definitely feel that horses like Otis, retired or in light, non-competitive work are fine with yearly boosters.

When I planned my autumn play dates, I had a couple of events which did require her to have been vaccinated within six months of attending. So I had her done. I also decided that by taking her out to a variety of competitions in different areas there was a risk of her picking up the virus, so it was best to give her a booster.

I did however, have an interesting discussion with the vet who came out about these rules. We both agreed that whilst ensuring the majority of horses, with the consciousness owners, were vaccinated annually, there were major flaws which needed addressing in order to control the spread of equine influenza.

Firstly, the fact that although most competitions are insisting on vaccinations being up to date, very few check this upon arrival. So you could take an unvaccinated horse to a significant number of events and get away with it. Yes, it’s another thing to organise, but checking passports as people drive into the car park is the most effective. Then of course is the fact that some people sneakily take the wrong passport. So the passport meets requirements, but it doesn’t belong to the horse inside the lorry. This has led to some competitions doing spot checks, and going inside vehicles to check that the horse matches their ID.

I was talking to someone today, who transports horses for a living and she was telling me how she jet washes her lorry between outings and mists disinfectant in to minimise the risk of spreading disease – be it equine flu, strangles or equine herpes. Do all transporters do that? Well no, not when you consider that some will plan a route up the country and pick up and drop off several horses en route. This is perhaps a factor to consider if you hire transport.

Thirdly, there is a major hole at the UK ports. Only last month a local horse dealer went over to the Irish sales and picked up a lorry load of youngsters. They brought them into the UK via a ferry, stressed them with a long, hot journey, without a single vaccination amongst the horses. Then proceeded to advertise the horses and book viewings from the day they arrived. Regardless of the lack of vaccinations, the poor horses are susceptible to any illness because they were tired, dehydrated and stressed. So they could develop equine flu upon arrival, or in the first few days of being in the UK. They might be carrying the virus, cough over a potential buyer, who then goes to another yard to view another horse, taking the virus with them. Thus the disease spreads.

Horses coming into the UK, from Ireland or the continent, need to be innoculated against equine flu and have some form of an isolation procedure. It’s not the private individuals the BEF and AHT need to target with vaccination rules, it’s the professionals who are transporting horses on a daily basis, and those importing horses. Look at the Icelandics. They don’t let any pony who has left the island to return, regardless of vaccinations, as they may bring disease back. Recently, they culled a load of sheep who became infected from an imported ram. Perhaps this is a bit extreme, but we need to tighten control of our borders. Sorry, that sounded a little bit Brexit.

Research is suggesting that there will be a move towards six monthly vaccinations, but I hope that legislation retains some common sense and doesn’t require equines who don’t travel much to have two boosters a year, whilst competition horses or those who travel a lot would benefit from increased protection and would help reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

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