Up until the outbreak of African horse sickness (AHS) in the Middle East in the late 1950’s, it was thought that South Africa had exported (by sea) close to 350 000 horses, largely in support of the war effort during the first and second World Wars.
The Middle East outbreak raised global fears of AHS and the international community deemed Africa to be endemic with a resultant embargo on the movement of horses out of Africa for the next four decades. The exception was the USA which accepted horses from Africa on the basis of a 60-day post arrival vector-proof quarantine.
Following a combined initiative of the broader equestrian industry, scientific and veterinary sectors, the EU ratified the South African Horse Export Protocol in 1997 and South Africa has since exported close to 1000 horses from Kenilworth Quarantine Station in the AHS Free Zone in Cape Town worth an estimated R250 million per annum.
However, this does not reveal the fact that in the 13 years since the decision was passed into law by the European Commission, there have been four outbreaks of AHS in the AHS Controlled Area. Every time this led to the temporary suspension of imports from South Africa to the EU, clearly an unsatisfactory scenario and one that is presently impacting the ambitions of South Africa’s horseracing fraternity and our 2012 London Olympic bid.
The last outbreak of AHS in South Africa’s AHS Controlled Area was in February 2011, but officially declared to be over on 23 June.
Consequently, the South African Veterinary Services (Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, DAFF) formerly applied to a number of South Africa’s trading partners to consider a protocol that would allow direct imports from Cape Town during this year’s low-vector season. The application is based on the 2008 version of the OIE AHS Code with the offer of equivalence which is summarized as follows:
* Export during the low risk time of the year (80 days after last case)
* Export from AHS Free Zone
* Continuous residence in vector proof quarantine station
* Limited exercise under vector protection
* Additional testing including RT PCR (in process of OIE validation)
The purpose of this document is to raise two issues, both intertwined, which have a bearing on South Africa’s ability to grow its equestrian business:
The 1980’s Spanish outbreak of AHS proved that the disease was not confined to within African borders. In fact a recent study of emerging diseases (Re-emergence of Blue Tongue, AHS and Orbivirus Diseases – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/), clearly predicted that outbreaks of vector-borne diseases like AHS are likely in the near future and that non-infected countries should be developing safeguards to defend against future outbreaks.
The following is a brief description of AHS in the South African and International contexts.
a. Virus description
i. Non-contagious virus transmitted by culicoides midge
ii. 9 sero-types
iii. High mortality in unprotected horses
b. AHS in South Africa
i. +-300 000 horses in South Africa
ii. During summer months (November/December – May/June), outbreaks of AHS occur annually (endemic) in the North-eastern provinces (Limpopo, Mphumalanga, Gauteng, KZN and Eastern Cape) – >1000kms from Cape Town
iii. During winter months (June/July – October/November), AHS disappears when culicoides midge is killed off
iv. Since 1960, only 6 outbreaks of AHS in AHS Controlled Area in Western Cape due to climate (hot dry summer), distance from endemic areas (>1000kms) and geographical barriers (mountain range + Atlantic and Indian Oceans)
c. AHS outbreaks since 2005 (AHS Trust data – unofficial*)
* Official data can be found on the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries website: www.nda.agric.za
* The AHS Trust aims to encourage reporting (early warning system), grow awareness and support research initiatives
d. Scientific Strategy
i. Development of New Vaccine
The current live modified vaccine was developed in the 1930’s and modifed in the 1970’s to improve its efficacy. From an international perspective, it is deemed unsafe to use given the potential to transmit virus to the vector and the Equine Research Centre, Faculty of Veterinary Science, Onderstepoort (ERC) is developing a new vaccine with the following characteristics:
* Recombinant technology
* Inherently safe
* Proof of concept (Serotype)
* World wide patent
Four of the nine serotypes will have been trialled within the next 18 months under existing funding arrangements provided by the ERC’s funding partners, Horseracing South Africa (Pty) Ltd and the Thoroughbred Racing Trust. Thereafter, the cost of completing the balance of the serotypes is anticipated to cost between €3-6 million according to the ERC’s main international collaborator.
The EU has already accepted the principle of establishing a vaccine bank and funding to expedite the completion of this project is much needed given the international threat of the disease.
ii. Development of New Diagnostic Test
The ability to quickly and accurately detect virus following an outbreak has both local and international impacts. From an international trade perspective (OIE Manual), the existing serology-based (ELISA) test is time-consuming and subject to interpretation. The Real Time PCR test is able to provide a “yes” or “no” answer within hours of receiving a sample.
The Equine Research Centre has also developed a RT PCR for AHS which is in the final stages of being validated with the OIE as an alternative test for international trade.
2. International Trade
The EU protocol (97/10/EC) was developed on the principles described in the 1995 World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) AHS Code.
The OIE is the inter-governmental organisation established in 1924, currently consisting of 178 members. It is mandated by WTO to safeguard World Trade by publishing health standards for international Trade in animals and animal products.
Much progress has been made in amending the AHS Code to more correctly address the risk posed by AHS to importing countries. The last revision to the AHS Code was in 2008, but further far-reaching changes are likely to be adopted at the 2012 OIE General Assembly which will introduce the following principles:
• Official OIE recognition of AHS
• South Africa to define own control measures as accepted by OIE
• Pre-export quarantine to be significantly reduced with testing (RT PCR)
• If outbreak occurred in AHS Controlled Area (Containment Zone), it will be possible to resume exporting 80 days after the last case of AHS was confirmed.
South African sport horses of all breeds have excelled overseas and trade at approximately 20% of the value of other major bloodstock producers such as Australasia, Europe and the USA.
Consequently, South Africa has enormous potential to grow market share of the global horse trade which will impact positively on the developing economy and, grow employment, skills development and wealth creating opportunities especially in the historically disadvantaged rural communities.
International horseracing and other equestrian events including the Olympic Games are also very much on the agenda for South Africa and the international community is urged to support these initiatives.