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This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it (Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803–1882)

As the world governing body of international equestrian sport, the Fédération Equestre International (FEI, http://www.fei.org) has seen the number of events it regulates rise from a few hundred in the 1980s to almost 3500 in 2013. Never has the sport at all levels been so popular.

In simple terms this is the result of the irresistible attraction of the special partnership between rider and horse unique to equestrian sport. But behind this the reason is very much more complex. Across the globe, equestrian sport is now showing the result of years of prior investment. Years of dedication by the international and national equestrian federations and other regulators, by organisers and sponsors committing large sums of money so that events or fixtures can take place, millions of hours of paid or volunteer labour, TV networks and publications deciding that the sport is one to promote, an ever increasing number of regional games and championships, and investment of all manner of resources by the many diverse groups and individuals who make up our sport. Most of all, there has been a huge investment of the most important of resources – passion and time.

The high levels of growth are especially evident in the regions seeing fast socioeconomic development which therefore have an increasing number of people who wish to breed, own or compete horses in FEI disciplines or in racing. Some indicators of this growth are that there are now as many FEI events being held in Central and South America as in the whole of North America, and that the last FEI World Equestrian Games (2010) and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games had a more diverse set of nations participating than ever before. The problems of moving horses across borders from one country to another have been brought into sharper focus by the increased volume of horses now moving internationally to compete.

If the equine industry were an iceberg, then the international level competition is the top. Below the surface lies national sport and the vast economy of leisure-riding related businesses. All of this produces some impressive facts: every 5–10 horses support at least one job; billions in tax revenues are created from the profits injected into local economies, or from the salaries from jobs supported by the sector, or – in the case of racing – taxes from sales or betting. In many countries, the existence of some communities is only due to activities around the use of horses in sport or associated breeding industries.

Key to all of this has been constant good management of the many different equine sports over a long period of time. Traditionally in the equine world the term ‘management’ relates to how horses are cared for, and is an important part of keeping them healthy and free from infectious disease. There are many reasons to prevent infectious disease. Not only is disease prevention a key part of maintaining equine health and welfare but it is also essential for optimum performance: only healthy horses perform to the best of their ability, and only horses that are free from infectious diseases can be allowed to gather together and compete against one another.

Equine influenza is both highly contagious and unpleasant. This, and the potentially long recovery time, means that outbreaks are extremely disruptive to normal equestrian activities. Equine influenza spreads rapidly, meaning that outbreaks require a restriction of movements until the disease is contained. Influenza in horses should absolutely not be confused with a ‘bit of a virus’ or ‘just a cough’. Past outbreaks have been catastrophic and in many cases, such as in Hong Kong and Australia, have caused enormous economic losses. The latter outbreak has resulted in changes in government import policies in Australasia that make it more difficult to move high performance horses there.

The protection against influenza depends on good management combined with a good vaccination programme using efficacious vaccine products, with as much of the equine population as possible being vaccinated. Limiting the effect of outbreaks also depends on having good organised surveillance, or at least taking samples quickly to obtain an early diagnosis. Very important for prevention is the routine application in stables of simple biosecurity measures to prevent the introduction of this and other diseases or at least to reduce their onward transmission. Biosecurity should be the first piece of advice that clinicians give to their clients about influenza prevention.

Given that the equine influenza virus has the well-known ability to evolve into different strains and that there is regular divergence within such strains, a good vaccine product is one that has good efficacy and contains the strains that have an antigenic similarity to those strains known to be circulating. Currently, the predominant strains circulating in Europe are the H3N8-American-Florida strains, which have diverged into clade 1 (e.g. Ohio03, South Africa/4/03 types) and clade 2 (e.g. Richmond1/07). Latterly the clade 2 strain has been the cause of most concern in Europe for example, while in North America the Florida clade 1 strain remains the most prevalent.

Given these continual changes, vaccine manufacturers need to ensure that they are up to date with the most recent information on circulating virus strains so that their influenza vaccine products provide the most effective protection. To ensure that vaccine manufacturers have this information in a timely manner the World Organisation of Animal Health (OIE) set up an Expert Surveillance Panel to review and analyse virus typing obtained from outbreaks and influenza surveillance data so that it could recommend which strains should be incorporated into equine influenza vaccine products (http://www.oie.int/en/our-scientific-expertise).

Recommendations were first made by the OIE Expert Surveillance Panel over a decade ago, but to date very few of the manufacturers have upgraded to even those early recommendations of strains that were circulating at the time, and none have upgraded to the most recent recommendation in 2010 to ensure that examples of both Florida clade 1 and clade 2 viruses were included.

The manufacturers, with their key role in the shared good management of protecting the investment made by the global equine industry, have shown a lack of timely responsiveness. In their defence, the regulatory requirements to produce new vaccine products with the correct strains are more expensive and complex to meet in many countries than those controlling updates to human vaccines. This is why the human health sector is able to appear to produce updated seasonal influenza vaccines every year. Equine influenza vaccine technology is more complex because of differences in antigen type and load as well as the inclusion of adjuvants. In comparison, human influenza vaccines are relatively simple.

If fast track mechanisms for licensing improved influenza vaccines can operate in the human market, then why can this not happen to some extent for equine products? Add in to this also the high degree of mergers and restructuring that has taken place in the veterinary pharmaceutical industry. But time is now marching on, and the OIE-recommended actions for the suitable strains to be used by the manufacturers have been clear for a long time. With the advantages of creating a simplified approach to the licensing of vaccines by the authorities also so clear, then as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, now ‘is a very good time if we but know what to do with it’.

The veterinary profession also has a key part to play at this time. It has always had a responsibility to provide clients with the most effective available vaccines, and hence practitioners also have the OIE recommendations to guide their choice of vaccine product and, if no such products are available, to ask the manufacturers to follow the recommendations. The profession meanwhile also has to remember its other responsibilities. Biosecurity is a well-recognised and essential need in many other animal industries, but across the equine sector can it really be said to be as widely discussed as it should be in an industry with so much at risk? The simple measures and behaviours that reduce the likelihood of the introduction of infectious disease, and the limit of any onward spread are important topics of conversation to be had with clients. Better to have such conversations now, than when it is too late. Given the increasing levels of international movements of horses, the value of the horses themselves, the capital invested in events by organisers, and the aspirations of owners, riders and, in some cases, the hopes of nations, biosecurity must become a basic foundation of how the industry helps to protect itself against all types of infectious disease. It is, after all, the basis of good management.

So there are many different players needed to prevent the occurrence of equine influenza: vaccine manufacturers, vaccine regulators, the OIE, veterinary practitioners, owners/riders/trainers and also the industry's own regulators. All have an important role to play in the good management of equestrian sport and its industry, supporting the investment of many. It is a good thing indeed to know what is the right thing to do, and the right time to do it must surely be now.