There have been a few reports of equine herpesvirus (EHV-1) neurological disease over the last couple of weeks and some other cases that have been less well publicized. Hopefully it’s all just been a blip on the radar and not a sign of things to come as equine events start to ramp up at this time of year. However, it would be good for racetracks to take these cases as reminders of the ever-present risk of EHV and the need to try to prevent problems.
Some tracks have taken this issue seriously and are working on infection control and outbreak response plans. In response to one outbreak, a Minnesota track is building an isolation area for infected horses and implementing a variety of infection control measures.
Too often, the response to EHV-1 is only reactive: when there’s no immediate problem, people don’t do anything, and when there is a problem, people freak out (and it’s hard to do things right when people are freaking out).
We need a happy middle ground that includes a reasonable response plan (effective and realistic) and proactive measures to both reduce the risk of an outbreak and to facilitate response.
Racetracks are starting to understand the need, although the response is variable. The number of outbreaks and the potential implications of them (e.g. sick or dead horses, cancelled racing, horses banned from going to certain tracks) means that it is in the horse owners’ and tracks’ best interests to do things right. What constitutes "right" is a moving target, though, and some people just don’t want to bother.
You can virtually guarantee that there will be EHV-1 outbreaks at racetracks this summer. A limited number of horses will die but there will be massive disruption based on quarantines (sometimes reasonable, often excessive) and other fall-out.
While there’s no way to completely eliminate the risk of EHV in horses, there are many things that can be done to reduce the risk of an outbreak. Some are relatively cheap and easy, such as
- Ensuring that horses with signs consistent with EHV-1 are promptly examined and isolated
- Avoiding shipping horses from sales directly into racing barns
- Cohorting groups on tracks as much as possible to contain incidents to individual barns
- Fostering routine infection control practices by people who frequently move between barns like veterinarians, farriers and riders/drivers
Other measures may take more time, effort and planning, such as creation of isolation areas and development of clear outbreak response plans. One of the most important things that can be done, however, is improving communication and trust. Often the biggest challenges in outbreaks involve poor communications, such as unwillingness to report cases, egos and agendas that get in the way of effective and timely response, and various other related problems that can be fixed by people thinking and talking to each other.
Some tracks are doing a good job of thinking proactively. Many are taking the "head-in-the-sand" approach. Any track could run into a problem, but my money’s on bigger problems occurring at the tracks that don’t take this problem seriously.
Unfortunately, we’ll be talking more about EHV-1 outbreaks this summer.