Fair Hill learns, moves forward from EHV-1 case

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Add disease control and media relations to the job description for Fair Hill Training Center board president Dr. Kathy Anderson, who helped the facility navigate an equine herpesvirus case last month.

A Thoroughbred horse on the grounds showed neurologic signs of the disease and tested positive in early January, but was quickly isolated from the rest of Fair Hill’s equine population and business remained relatively normal. The majority of the training center’s equine occupants trained and raced normally, other than the horses exposed to the positive case. Those exposed horses could not leave Fair Hill to race and were restricted to specific training hours. All area racetracks except Laurel Park allowed unexposed Fair Hill horses to ship in for races.

The isolation phase ended Jan. 22. No other horses showed signs and Anderson was pleased with the ultimate results though the original case is still in isolation and tested positive for EHV-1 Jan. 30. That horse is clinically stable, however, and will be tested every two weeks for the disease, which can take weeks to clear. Though it does not affect humans, EHV-1 is a highly contagious respiratory virus that can pass through the air and through objects.

None of the exposed horses showed signs, nor were they tested. EHV-1 is a common virus that can show up on tests from horses with no symptoms. The virus turns dangerous when it changes to a neurologic version. Positive tests, no matter the clinical signs, can mean longer restrictions on horses’ movements.

“A percentage of the population is going to test positive no matter what,” Anderson said. “You could test any barn and get positives. Those horses might have no clinical signs, but if 20 percent of a barn tested positive, you’re shut down.”

Fair Hill controlled the illness via geography (the center’s barns are spread over 300 acres), training rules, entry/exit rules to the barn on hold and an isolation barn for the one horse. Fair Hill also had to control the message among trainers and racing jurisdictions.

“This required speaking to every racing jurisdiction’s racetrack veterinarian and saying, ‘Here are the facts. What information can I give you to make you feel comfortable to make a decision?’ ” Anderson said. “I can’t make the decision for them, but if you put it to them and give them the information, then they can make a decision.”

Each track handled the situation a little bit differently, with the ultimate decision lying with either the state (via veterinarians) or the racetrack (via the racing department or stewards). Florida, Louisiana, New York, West Virginia and Pennsylvania allowed unexposed horses from Fair Hill to enter.

In the end, Anderson liked the way things turned out though she also said the management team took plenty away from the situation. Fair Hill will consider building isolation stalls for emergency use (luckily, there was space available on the grounds but that might not always be the case).

“I’d like to think that at the end of the day it further reinforces the credibility we try to maintain as a training establishment,” she said. “We’ve had a successful outcome and hopefully the next time around, and there will be a next time, people know that.”

– Equine Disease Control. In December, discussions at the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Convention centered on communications strategies for equine disease outbreaks. The talks came about in response to outbreaks of EHV and other diseases including a 2011 event in Utah in which a potential epidemic (where at least13 horses died) was halted. The first step after that outbreak was the creation of a National Equine Health Plan and one of the next steps involves proper communication strategies.

Fair Hill involved state department of agriculture authorities in its process, but could in the future get help from national protocols and communications experts.

“That would take the weight off people like myself or farm owners, farm managers, shipping managers who don’t always have the connections or the knowledge,” Anderson said. “I think it will be a very, very useful tool but for us at Fair Hill we would still have to manage our relationships with the racetracks.”