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Deadly kunjin virus kills horses
By Annabelle Homer
Friday, 08/07/2011

South Australian government officials are racing to secure a vaccine for the deadly Kunjin virus that’s killed 7 horses.
Borne from mosquito’s, Kunjin virus was first detected in South Australia in February.
Adelaide Plains vet Liz Herbert says she’s never seen the virus before in South Australia.

She says though it’s not as serious as the Hendra virus, which is passed from horses to humans, horses have had to be euthanised:
“It presents differently to every horse, most of the horses that I’ve seen their face gets all these fasciculations and they’re lifting their lips and a lot of them don’t want to put their head down.”

“If they do put their head down it makes them wobbly, some have muscle tremors and I’ve had the odd horse go down.”

There has also been outbreaks in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales.
However it’s endemic in the Northern Territory with 90 per cent of horses been exposed to the virus over the past 30 years.

Darwin veterinary virologist Lorna Melville says there has only been one mild case that’s made a horse sick.

However, scientists have isolated a small crucial mutation in the virus which is causing the horses to react differently in the southern states.

The vets say the mutated version is very similar to West Nile virus for which there is an effective vaccine in the United States.

There is hope the vaccine will also work against Kunjin

Equine Influenca September 2007
What's Gone Wrong
And How to Put It Right

An expert opinion by Elizabeth Woolsey Herbert DVM

The outbreak of influenza not only devastated the Thoroughbred industry in Australia, it devastated the pleasure horse industry, the "service provider" industry (I am member of this industry) and it decimated the primary industries in both a national and a state level. The credibility, on any level, of government to deal with this outbreak was severely tarnished.

The "Austvetplan" was a poorly conceived and poorly implemented idea that was based on a viral outbreak that would be passed horse to horse. Its failings were blamed on the human bio-security breaches, and not on the failure of the plan to account for horse to human to horse.

The government agencies are run by people with agendas. Many want to keep the island influenza free and many want to fly the "Austvetplan" flag they conceived until the last horse in Australia gets influenza. The problem is that many, if not most, do not have a vested interest in the industry other than their areas of control. They are not really at the coal-face. They may even be veterinarians who don't see horse owners and horses on a day to day basis. They have, and frankly, I have, misjudged the love and dedication that horse owners have toward their horses.

For most of the owners this is not at "arms length" relationship. This is not a Thoroughbred trainer who has forty horses under his charge, but lives away from the stable. This is a family that has four to ten horses that are right in the back yard. They look at the snotty noses, they record the temperatures, sometimes hourly, or they wait for the virus to hit. They see neighbours or friends get vaccine while they are excluded. These were people who would rather let their horses get the flu and suffer for the sake of keeping the country "influenza free" (much to my dismay) until the strategy from the various DPI's was exposed as not a strategy to keep the flu from spreading, but a strategy to keep the racing industry going. This is a plan to protect one industry that was cloaked in the sheep's wool of fighting the spread of the virus.

At that point even the slowest of the slow knew where the DPI's interest and allegiance lay. At that point , few people had any respect for the state and even to some extent, the federal government authorities. Sadly that includes people from my  profession as well.

I feel that having governments deal with this catastrophe was like asking a tortoise to herd cats. The bureaucracy was just too slow and too entrenched in defending themselves and their plans to adequately deal with such a dynamic situation. We needed people who were not married to a plan, but to the well being of all horses and all industries.

Influenza vaccine does not cause economic ruin in countries where it is endemic contrary to public opinion. In fact, the average horse owner would not even consider it to be anything more than just a normal and rather inexpensive cost of owning a horse. Compared to the cost of the dentist, farrier chiropractor, and dare I say, veterinarian, an influenza vaccine would not even register on the radar. Few horse owners in America even vaccinate more than once a year for influenza, and as a veterinarian, I did not recommend more than one influenza vaccination a year, unless the horse was competing and traveling to other horse venues. Some owners would vaccinate more than yearly, and some wouldn't, but no one makes horse owners vaccinate. It is just smart preventive medicine.

So instead of forcing people to vaccinate, and instead of "not letting" people have access to vaccine, I suggest the government step out of the role of control and let market forces take over. Allow people to make their own choices and pay for their choices after an initial round of vaccines. Horse ownership is not a right and governments should not finance the protection of horses against such a virus.

There is vaccine in Australia that is about as effective as influenza vaccine, and is and is aimed at a virus that has far more complications than equine influenza. Equine herpes virus causes flu like symptoms, occasional coital lesions on both stallions and mares, abortions and rarely paralysis and death. Only very few people vaccinate for herpes or "rhino" and there is no obligation to provide evidence of vaccination except when mares go to breeding studs. So, the government has no reason to say that letting the horse owning public decide to vaccinate (or not) has no precedence. You would be crazy not to vaccinate.

It is a myth to say that if influenza becomes endemic in Australia, it will lead to ruination of the industry.

It is a fact that the continuation of this plan and the preferential vaccination of valuable vs. the endangered horses will cause ruination of many industries.

My father (in California) and I together have over 75 years experience in an endemic influenza country. Neither of us remembers when the flu stopped a single equine event yet we have both seen many cases of influenza.

At the onset of the equine influenza epidemic in AustraliaI urged all horse owners to unite and demand that they be allowed to vaccinate their horses and be prepared to pay for it themselves. The vaccine over in the States retails for about $15 dollars per dose. Market forces should get that cost down as well. A microchip will not offer any immunity. We do not need government or quasi government ( Horse Council) controls. We need money to be put into vaccine, not a team of people vaccinating one horse

The consensus in the United States is that vaccine and acceptance is the way to go. They are shaking their heads at our eradication plan and the selective vaccinations.  


Elizabeth Woolsey Herbert DVM
Adelaide Plain Equine Clinic
Gawler, South Australia
September 2007

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