Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, people’s understanding of infectious disease has improved massively. David Rendle MRCVS, junior vice president of BEVA and chair of its Health and Medicines Committee, explains why that could be useful in the future battle against influenza.

Well before the tribulations of Covid-19, UK horse owners faced a devastating flu outbreak in January 2019, bringing racing and competition to a halt. It was the highest recorded numbers of equine influenza for many years.

Outbreaks were first reported in France in December 2018, with the UK noting outbreaks from 2 January 2019. The majority of outbreaks were confirmed in June and July 2019, thought to be due to the high mixing of horses at this time of year.

The UK saw the highest number of outbreaks of any country, possibly due to the fact that the UK has a much lower level of vaccinated horses in comparison to Europe, with unconfirmed reports of only 30 to 40% of horses being vaccinated.

Credit is due to the British Horseracing Authority and the Animal Health Trust for doing an incredible job of investigating the outbreaks — in other countries there wouldn’t have been the same scale of testing

Outbreak reports reduced from August, with no outbreaks confirmed in September and only one confirmed outbreak in the UK in October involving an imported horse.

“There were a couple of cases at the start of this year, but that is normal,” explains David. “Some practices did stop vaccination for a short period [due to lockdown in March], which may have caused some problems for people at the end of their vaccination programme, but that has been largely sorted now.”

The worry, David says, is that people don’t keep up vaccinations.

“It is frustrating that historically owners haven’t appreciated the value of vaccination, as the scientific evidence is clear in that the only way to effectively protect the UK’s horse population is to have a high level of vaccination,” he says.

“There are certain sectors where the rate of vaccination isn’t high, and those horses are at higher risk of having more problems and potentially dying as a result. These sectors also undermine the hard work put in by other sectors of the industry.

“Hopefully people’s understanding of infectious disease has improved as a result of COVID and they’ll see that vaccination is the only way to control a highly infectious disease in a constantly moving population.”

Keeping up the six-monthly vaccinations is still the recommended choice, but a yearly vaccination is infinitely better than nothing.

“Twice a year is much better at protecting the population which is why performance horses have now been moved toward six-monthly vaccinations,” David adds.

“We know it is unrealistic to expect everyone to vaccinate six-monthly, but everyone should vaccinate once a year as a minimum and then administer additional boosters if they are moving and mixing their horses. We need to act together to keep our horses safe.”

Read the full article inside the January 2021 issue of Your Horse. Find out more here.