Can You Hear Me Now? Establishing A Communication Center for Disease Outbreak

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As we’ve learned during various outbreaks of equine herpesvirus at racetracks and training centers in the past year, bad news can travel quickly when a horse comes down with a highly contagious illness at a competition venue.

In the true nature of bad news though, information about the status of a disease outbreak can also become morphed and take on a life of its own, leaving horsemen to sort out a tangled web of rumors, press releases, and old wives’ tales.

Dr. Nathaniel White, professor of surgery at Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center and former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, would like to change all that.

In 2010, it occurred to White and his colleagues that although disease outbreaks sometimes garner press coverage and attention from the appropriate state veterinarian, there is no central, national system that can track equine disease outbreaks and disseminate information to a concerned public when an outbreak occurs. He made it his goal to establish a national Equine Disease Communication Center, which would include a website, call center, and email alert systems for horsemen and media to fill in that information gap.

Many racetrack officials are quick to announce the presence of an illness like equine herpesvirus on the premises and associated shipping restrictions, but fans and horsemen may be left to rely on Google to tell them how serious an illness is, or how to prevent its spread to their stable. The EDCC, as White is calling it, could also outline biosecurity measures, symptoms, and modes of transmission for the disease in question.

At the recent 2013 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, White detailed a chain of events in which a barn owner was left confused after receiving word of a neurological disease outbreak at a nearby show facility. Without a central source for education and updates, they were unsure how to protect their horses and even discovered a rumor that their barn was affected because other horsemen were given misinformation.

Dr. Nathaniel White

Dr. Nathaniel White

“We hope that the site will become a common source for everybody,” said White. “We would have an email blast, so if something actually happens, an email with all the communication that’s been approved will go out to any organization that we have an email address for.”

White hopes that the Jockey Club would sign up for such a blast, enabling it to alert breeders and trainers when a disease outbreak happens—removing the need for horsemen to stumble on a news item to be informed of a problem near them.

Currently, White said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state officials, and horsemen’s groups agree that the creation of such a center would be beneficial to all. The United States Equestrian Federation in Lexington, Ky. has agreed to host the call center for the EDCC and provide the tech support for the Center’s website. Next, White will focus on working with experts to establish communications protocols for the Center’s site, and generating funding from the horse industry.

“We have an agreement with the state animal health officials and the Department of Agriculture that we will move forward with the EDCC,” said White. “We’re working with American Association of Equine Practitioners now to potentially help take in funding and manage staff. We hope to have that finalized in February.”

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  • NY Owner

    Amazing that the USDA didn’t take care of this years ago! They require the ridiculous Health Certificates which only give a false sense of security but no public dissemination of contagious disease info?

  • PH Horseman

    Hallelujah! As a public health scientist and a horseman, I’ve been beating this drum for the last 10 years. In my estimation, science and transparency are critical to the integrity and the viability of the industry. Many of out international industry friends are lite years ahead of this on this.

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