Hastings Racecourse cancelled racing last Saturday because of an outbreak of equine influenza in horses at the track. A recent CBC news report indicates that things started a week and a half earlier, with 150 horses affected when the race cancellations were announced. That’s a pretty impressive outbreak.

There’s no information about the response, beyond cancelling racing. In some ways, flu is quite easy to control because animals do not become long-term carriers of the virus and infected horses only shed the virus for a short period of time. This makes it easier to contain an outbreak with good infection control precautions, since you only need to implement them over a fairly short period of time. However, the downside is flu is highly infectious and can spread easily and quickly.

I have no first hand knowledge of this outbreak so I can’t say anything about what was done or what was missed. However, from a generic standpoint, these are the main problems I see with this kind of outbreak.

There’s no response.

  • This is too often the problem. This can occur because people don’t realize something is happening or the snow-balling of issues that can result. Education is needed to help prevent this.
  • Lack of response can also occur because people don’t want to tell anyone about an infectious case or don’t trust the authorities. This sometimes happens if horsemen are worried about being stigmatized or prevented from racing or showing. Again, education is needed.
  • Sometimes, there’s mistrust of track or regulatory personnel. If people are worried that the other group doesn’t understand or care about their situation, or they don’t realize the benefit of communicating, they might try to hide a problem.

There’s a late response.

  • Another common problem. This usually occurs because people try the "I hope it will go away" approach to infection control first. This rarely works.
  • If you get infection control measures in place early, you can contain things much more easily. You’re much more likely to contain an outbreak if you only have one horse, or a few horses, affected. It’s also easier to contain the disease if you can keep it localized to one barn. Once it spreads to many horses and gets into multiple barns, it can be tough to stop.
  • This is why protocols that require reporting of fevers other other basic, early signs of infectious disease (and how to respond to them) should be commonplace.

The response is half-hearted.

  • Yet another common problem. Even when people get moving and try to contain an outbreak, it’s often not done effectively.
  • One reason for this lack of efficacy is people often don’t want to do what’s recommended. Infection control measures always make life more difficult, and they take time, no doubt. They’re important though. Skipping important measures and just trying to do the more convenient ones isn’t a good response.
  • Another reason for an inffective response is not knowing what to do. Sometimes, I get involved in outbreaks after there’s been an initial response and see lots of effort being put into relatively (or completely) useless activities, while the key control measures are ignored. Getting the input of experts as early as possible is critical.

There’s inconsistent response.

  • This may be similar to ‘half-hearted," but by this I mean an outbreak where some people do everything right, and some do little or nothing. Sometimes this is a result of poor communication, and therefore everyone doesn’t understand what’s happening. Better communication and education can help.
  • Other times, this can be caused by simple belligerence: "I don’t want to do it so I’m not going to do it!" Sometimes good communication and education can help with this too, by showing people that it’s to their own benefit. However, willful neglect is not uncommon and it’s hard to handle.

The common themes to preventing these issues are communication and education.