Tiny fly causes great alarm in local equestrian industry

While the country is still under Covid-19 siege, the local equestrian community dread the outbreak of African Horse Sickness (AHS) which could potentially cripple the industry.

Royal Malaysian Polo Association (RMPA) executive secretary Peter Ibrahim Abisheganaden said the equestrian community have been on high alert since April following a surge of the disease in Thailand.

The disease is spread by culiciodes midges, a tiny fly which bites horses and then acts as a vector in transmitting the disease.

“The threat is very real. In Thailand, roughly 560 horses died within two months,” said Peter.

“If it hits Malaysia, it would devastate not only polo but all forms of equestrian sports, including horse racing.

“If it spreads to Malaysia, we can forget about going to the Sea Games in the next few years.

“We estimate that in Malaysia, our investment (value) in polo sport horses, specifically polo, is roughly RM120 million based on the 895 polo ponies that we have records of.

“For other equestrian sports, there are over 1,000 horses (in Malaysia) and race horses are even more expensive.

“Thousands of people (in the industry) could potentially lose their jobs and the government would also lose income from horse racing.

“This (AHS outbreak) is something which we really want to avoid. We (equestrian community) have come together and set up a task force to combat it. We are also working closely with the Department of Veterinary Services (DVS).

“Restrictions have been enforced since April and any horse movement requires a permit from DVS which is only granted upon fulfilment of certain biosecurity criteria.

“At the moment, the state of Terengganu is isolated in regard to movement of horses. No horses are allowed in or out of Terengganu while Penang is also conducting its own quarantine.

“We have also spoken to all the clubs and have educated and advised them on how to step up on biosecurity.”

Four cases were detected in Terengganu recently and all four horses which tested positive have been euthanised. The source of infection, however, remains unclear.

This is because horses, despite being vaccinated for AHS, have been known to test positive for the disease and also display its symptoms, albeit to a lesser degree of severity.

“Although the (four) horses were (originally) Malaysian racing horses, it is believed that they had moved to Thailand after they ended their racing careers here and had participated in other forms of equestrian sports in Thailand before returning to Malaysia,” added Peter.

“I believe there is a high probability that these horses were vaccinated in Thailand, that’s why they show positive (test results) when they were tested.

“And their symptoms were ‘lower symptoms’, which is what they call post-vaccination syndrome. That is what we think.

“We hope this (positive test) was because of the vaccination in Thailand and not an (actual) outbreak here.”

According to Peter, the vaccination process for AHS is complicated and also expensive.

“From what we understand, the vaccine used for AHS is what is known as a live vaccine. The horses must be quarantined in a vector-proof stable for 60 days after the vaccine is administered.

“If they are not quarantined in a vector-proof facility, there is the possibility that midges will bite the horses and spread AHS to other horses which would cause an outbreak.

“It’s very expensive to vector-proof a stable as these midges are tiny and can easily slip through mosquito netting.

“They require what we call 40 mesh nets which are very expensive and not everybody can afford this. The price for the netting alone for a 200-stable facility would cost about RM400,000. This does not include the price of the vaccine itself.”

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