A huge equine influenza virus outbreak occurred in Australia in 2007 – a classic example of what can happen when a virus gets into an area where it’s never been before. There were huge numbers of affected horses and a massive disruption to the industry due to quarantines and other control measures.
A special edition of the Australian Veterinary Journal (July 2011) includes a series of papers covering different aspects of this outbreak. In one paper (Smyth et al) the authors look at the economic consequences and tried to determine the financial costs of the outbreak. Such estimates are always tough to make and can never be 100% accurate, but they can give a general idea of the scope and impact of an outbreak. Not surprisingly, the costs were pretty astounding.
A series of measures were implemented to assist individuals and organization that were impacted. The total cost of those packages was over $263 million AusD.
New South Wales and Queensland were most seriously affected, but all states and territories were impacted. These governments provided support in addition to the federal funds. For example, Queensland allocated over $27 million to various efforts, while New South Wales contributed more than $46 million.
This is the government body that regulates racing in Western Australia. The outbreak cost this agency around $500 000, a figure that does not include lost employee time and approximately $15 million in lost wagering revenue. Some of this was recovered through insurance, but it’s now unlikely that they will be able to get further insurance to cover outbreaks.
Harness Racing Industry
It’s always hard to figure out the true costs to an industry after a major disaster because the trickle down effect goes so far, affecting people who provide support and services (e.g. hay suppliers) to various businesses that are affected directly because people in those groups don’t have money to spend. The total identifiable costs were calculated to be over $23 million, about half of which was to owners and trainers. The authors acknowledge the true costs were probably much higher.
A large inquiry was commissioned after the outbreak. This cost over $5 million.
Animal Health Australia
This group coordinated the emergency response and had to divert tremendous personnel time and resources. This included the vaccination program that distributed 670 000 doses of vaccine.
Households and businesses
Overall, it was estimated that horse associations lost $281 million, horse businesses $65 million and households $34 million.
The value of horses that were reported to have died was close to $1 million, despite the fact that equine flu is uncommonly fatal. This number doesn’t include intangible costs associated with losing a horse. However, reported deaths may be a minority and it was estimated that true horse death costs may have been $44 million. (However, I suspect the death rate estimate used for this value is high.)
Estimated costs…$35.7 million.
Do the exact numbers matter? No. They simply show that an infectious disease outbreak can cost a lot. In many areas, horses receive little government attention because they are not food animals, despite the fact that the highly mobile horse population is probably at much higher risk of importing a new disease, and despite the fact that the economic impact of the industry is huge (and often overlooked by governments and groups that fund agricultural research).
If nothing else, this should serve as a reminder to government and industry groups that attention needs to be paid to infection control and emergency planning. While groups are often reluctant to put much or any time, effort and funds into these areas, the amount of money that would be spent is inconsequential compared to the potential impact of even a small outbreak.
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