Having spent the morning ‘surfing the internet’ for as much information as I could possibly lay my hands on the current equine flu situation, I can confidently say that there is a plentiful supply of both information and advice available from all sorts of nationally and internationally recognised organisations.

No-one, absolutely no-one, can say that they don’t know what’s happening, or what precautions to take if they want to minimise the risk of their equines contracting this virus. Importantly, it is clear that on the latter there are no certainties and the person who can create that certainty is sure to make a fortune.

Equine flu (as equine influenza is more commonly known is regularly found in horses and is caused by various strains of the influenza virus. When inhaled, it invades the lining of the airway, which becomes inflamed producing a very sore throat, a nasty cough and a ‘runny’ nose.

Medication to help breathing can prove helpful,but antibiotics have no effect against a virus although can be useful to control secondary bacteria which invade any damaged area of the airways. Whilst youngsters are more susceptible than older horses, few cases are fatal, though foals present the greatest risk of death through pneumonia.

The story is all too familiar in the case of human influenza so we can easily identify how the horse feels when infected with the flu. Thankfully, equine flu it is non-transmissable to humans. From our own experience we know there is no cure for a virus, but vaccination provides a means to minimise its effects.

Interestingly, the current strain of equine flu has been identified as the Florida cade 1 (FC1) virus, which was last identified in Britain in February, 2018, but prior to that not since 2009 and not in Europe since 2011. While other organisations legislate for procedures and rules regarding vaccination, the detective work (for want of a better term) and testing is carried out by the Animal Health Trust, the leading veterinary and scientific research charity dedicated to the health and welfare of animals.

Based in Newmarket, it was established in 1942 by Dr Reginald Wooldridge, who wanted to advance veterinary medicine. Its surveillance organisation for equine influenza is appropriately called Equiflunet, which is easily accessed via the AHT website and updated on its Twitter platform.

At an international level, the AHT also works co-operatively with the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID), which promotes the international sharing of all influenza sequences ranging from human to equine to help researchers understand how they evolve, spread and potentially become pandemics.

As a result of this venture, AHT is able to monitor the global spread of the FC1 virus and share this information along with its own findings with us in Britain. In the update on February 17, AHT identified 29 yards in Britian where the FC1 virus was confirmed, predominantly in the East of England but not exclusively there. The first case was reported in Essex on January 2 and as recently as February 15, several horses were identified in the Worceester area. Two cases have been recorded in Central Scotland and we know that the owners of the yard have already put in place stringent measures to minimise its spread.

In the last few weeks, AHT reported an increase in equine flu activity in Europe, with outbreaks in Northern France at the end of December and positive diagnoses made in early 2019 in France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and Holland. To date, eight cases have been confirmed in vaccinated horses in Britian and similarly in France and Belgium.

There are links between recent Irish outbreaks and mainland Europe, while between France and Belgium six of the outbreaks are linked either via horse movement for trade or competitions. In a pattern similar to Britain, France, Holland and Ireland have confirmed the virus as FC1, the first in France since 2009 and in Ireland since 2010.

On February 6, AHT notified the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) that three cases of equine flu had been confirmed in vaccinated horses from a racing yard which had horses running at two racecourses that day.The potential risk of spreading this across many other yards throughout Britian resulted in the action taken by the BHA to cease horse racing in Britain on the February 7 until it was considered safe to continue racing on the basis of both welfare and the possible future spread of the disease.

Headed by world-leading expert in equine disease, Dr Richard Newton, the AHT staff worked closely with BHA vets to deal with more than a year’s worth of tests in just a few days. As a result, horse racing resumed in Britain on Wednesday, February 13.

Important races during the closed period were run at alternative venues last weekend and six additional fixtures scheduled later in the month to provide additional opportunities for those horses which missed out in their preparation for the forthcoming major racing festivals.

There is a genuine possibility that we talk up the current the problem into a crisis, which it certainly is not. In fact, I wonder, had horse racing not been called off across all courses in Britain, if we would have heard much about this outbreak. Who knows how far and to what extent it would have spread without this publicity?

However, the reality exists that horse racing is an industry and with its wealthiest National Hunt meetings at Cheltenham and Aintree on the horizon, the BHA had little option but act quickly to preserve the integrity of these two great events. In my view, it was a good call and the rise in awareness it has brought about can only help the equine population in the long term.

There is now an onus on competition and training event organisers to play their part in minimising the spread of the virus and the British Equestrian Federation has been quick to instruct them (February 18) to carefully check passports for identity and vaccination updates. All major competition organisations, including show jumping, dressage and eventing have been quick to emphasise their strict rules on vaccination for competition at all levels.

Principal equestrian centres have also been quick to post on social media their rules for admission to competitors, although it is unclear what procedures will be put in place and who will enforce them.

The identification of equines remains as important an issue as vaccination dates and with knowledgeable volunteers and vets in short supply, one has to wonder who will have this job on their remit.

It could be, of course, that some organisers will hide their heads in the sand and act in a completely irresponsible way by totally ignoring all the good advice which currently available to them. Competition horses and ponies, by and large, are part of a vaccination programme, however few of the local show goers have one in place and for good personal reasons, which include cost and a previous bad experience with vaccines, which many of us have experienced.

It’s not all plain-sailing but there may be a few sacrifices we have to make in the name of equine welfare.

Ultimately, individual horse owners face the decision how to address the problem if, indeed it is one for their own horses and ponies, and for the majority there won’t be one. At the end of the day, it is contact with infected cases which leads to the spread of the disease, so a stay-at-home policy for most owners is the easy option.

Given that we are still in February, that surely can’t be a tall order with many months ahead of us to get out and about. For the serious competitor with a programme to follow, or the professional with earnings at stake, it isn’t quite so easy and places the onus on them to observe the highest standards of integrity and management.

I remember the widespread flu virus of the 1980s when draconian measures were brought in by major shows and at huge expense we all had to have valid vaccination certificates. Thankfully, only the Horse of the Year Show currently imposes this rule, although previously the Royal Show in England was a stickler.

I have a lasting vision of the Sleighs’ horsebox heading home to Aberdeenshire from Stoneleigh without a Wells Shetland pony setting foot on the showground due to problems with vaccination records. Hopefully, this remains a past memory and if we all play our part and act responsibly, this current infection will pass relatively quickly and life with our equines will get back to some normality.