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Thursday 19 October 2017

Virology unit leads way in protecting Irish horses

Minister Simon Coveney met with Pamela Lyons, Manabu Nemoto (visiting scientist from the Japanese Racing Association), Rachel Lyons, Professor Ann Cullinane and CEO Sarah McNicholas at the Irish Equine Centre
Minister Simon Coveney met with Pamela Lyons, Manabu Nemoto (visiting scientist from the Japanese Racing Association), Rachel Lyons, Professor Ann Cullinane and CEO Sarah McNicholas at the Irish Equine Centre

The virology unit at the Irish Equine Centre is one of just four reference laboratories for equine influenza in the world.

Last October it was also designated as an OIE reference laboratory for equine rhinopneumonitis (equine herpes 1 virus or EHV-1). It is the only laboratory of its kind in Ireland.

The OIE is the veterinary equivalent of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and has a total of 180 member countries and a global network of reference laboratories covering 118 diseases of animals and birds.

The unit is led by Professor Ann Cullinane, who has been a major force in protecting the Irish equestrian industry from such diseases for almost 30 years.

A veterinary graduate from UCD, she later won a scholarship to do a PHd in equine influenza in Glasgow. She also gained experience in Cambridge and Boston, before returning to Ireland to set up the unit in 1997.

"We were fortunate at the time to receive a substantial grant from Sheikh Mohammed and that really got us off our feet," she said, "but ongoing research to combat these viruses takes a lot of resources, both financially and in terms of staff."

While many people consider the Irish Equine Centre to specialise in mostly thoroughbreds, it offers a comprehensive service to all sections of the Irish horse industry.

Equine influenza proved to be the biggest cause for concern in Ireland in recent years and last year 15 cases were diagnosed throughout the country.

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The initial outbreaks were found in non-

thoroughbreds but it later spread to three racing yards and a stud farm.

As a reference laboratory the IEC is actively engaged in equine influenza surveillance and reminds owners that all horses should be vaccinated against the virus.

Although not usually fatal, if left untreated equine influenza can cause further complications such as pneumonia, especially in foals.

Young foals are also highly susceptible to rotavirus, tests for which are carried out daily during the thoroughbred breeding season. It is a major cause of diarrhoea and often results in severe dehydration.

While the virus in highly contagious, Dr Cullinane says that some studs which have recurrent problems need to review their hygiene practices as it can survive for up to nine months in a contaminated environment.

In order to protect the foals, mares need to be vaccinated at eight, nine and 10 months during pregnancy.

"Another cause for concern is the equine herpes virus (EHV-1) which causes abortion in mares.

"It is important to vaccinate mares during pregnancy but there has been a serious shortage in the availability of vaccinations here in Ireland of late. However, it hoped that some will be coming in from the States shortly."

Mares in mixed yards are most at risk as horses and ponies can be exposed to the virus at race meetings, shows, hunts or sales and serve as a source of infection for broodmares.

"As part of our service we offer diagnosis and advice to all horse owners. That includes the examination of aborted foals," Dr Cullinane concluded.

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