There are a lot of recommendations out there for establishing or improving sound infection control practices on horse farms, many of which can be found on this very blog.  Some refer to such practices as "biosecurity," but what’s done on horse farms compared to the often very strict biosecurity protocols at facilities such as swine or poultry operations (e.g. all-in all-out management, closed barns, shower in) is very different, so we prefer to call it an infection control program, rather than "biosecurity."  Regardless, one of the biggest challenges with regard to infection control, in almost any setting, is getting people to comply with all the various policies and recommendations.  Unfortunately, it’s not enough to just tell people what needs to be done (that’d be too easy!) – knowledge by itself usually won’t change people’s behaviour.  They also need to be motivated to change their behaviour, for example by the potential for a positive reward (e.g. they get to take their horses to shows) or the potential to avoid a negative outcome (e.g. their horses don’t get sick).  Furthermore, individuals need to really believe they are capable (physically and mentally) of performing the required tasks – if they don’t think they can do it or be effective at it, they’re unlikely to try.  In reality, getting people to change their behaviour to adopt sound infection control practices can be quite complex.

A study soon to be published in Preventative Veterinary Medicine (Schemann et al. in press) looked at some of the factors that affect horse owners’ biosecurity practices and perceptions.  The study was performed in Australia one year after the devastating equine influenza outbreak that occurred in 2007, using an online questionnaire to which 759 horse owners responded.  Each owner’s biosecurity compliance was rated as low (30%), medium (20%) or high (50%) based on how often they reported using 16 different infection control measures.

Factors that were associated with low compliance or poor biosecurity practices included people who:

  • were younger in age
  • had two or more children
  • were not involved with horses commercially
  • had no long-term business impact from the 2007 equine flu outbreak
  • were not fearful of a future outbreak of equine flu in Australia
  • thought their current hygiene and access control practices were not very effective in protecting their horses

Now, studies based on surveys of this kind always need to be taken with a grain of salt, as the study population itself was difficult to define and the information was all self-reported by owners, which can lead to confounding and misclassification bias.  Nonetheless, the results are still interesting and on the whole are consistent with behaviour theory.  Those whose income and livelihood were not dependent on the horse industry, and those who were not fearful of another outbreak, would be less motivated to put the effort into infection control measures.  Furthermore, those who felt that what they were doing already wasn’t really effective (for whatever reason) would be less motivated to try harder because they can’t see the benefit.  It’s quite possible (as the authors speculate) that having two or more children results in less compliance with infection control simply due to the time constraints associated with having kids.  Lack of time to properly perform infection control procedures is a major barrier to compliance, even in human hospitals, particularly with understaffing issues. The lower compliance among young people is also common to studies looking at protective behaviour in human health, possibly because young people have a sense of certain degree of invulnerability that results in riskier behaviour overall.

When it comes to infection control, the old adage "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" is very important to remember.  Although 50% of the horse owners in this study reported having high biosecurity compliance, the 30% with low compliance could ruin all their efforts should another outbreak occur, by contributing to the transmission and propagation of the disease on their own farms as well as to others.  Hopefully this study will help the horse industry and government identify specific groups (i.e. young people, those not financially dependent on horses) at which educational and motivational campaigns can be targeted in the future.