The Pennsylvania EHV Outbreak That Wasn’t

by | 05.24.2019 | 11:40am

Nearly a week after it issued a disease outbreak alert through the Equine Disease Communication Center (EDCC), the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture says there isn't an outbreak of EHV (equine herpesvirus) in the state.

On May 17, the EDCC published a disease finding alert from the state indicating a horse on a Chester County equestrian facility had been confirmed as having the illness and also that the horse had “neurological deficits.” The horse, a steeplechaser named Out the Back Jack, was stabled on trainer Jonathan Sheppard's property and died earlier this week. The necropsy report has since indicated however, that the horse died from a ruptured stomach abscess, precipitated by a tear in his rectum – not from equine herpesvirus.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture released the following statement late Thursday:

“The Chester County, PA horse that tested positive for EHV-1 died on May 17 in isolation on a private farm. The post-mortem results indicate that the horse died of an unrelated medical issue, not from equine herpes myeloencephalopathy (EHM, the disease caused when EHV affects the central nervous system). There have been no other horses showing signs of EHV-1 infection and there is no 'outbreak' as has been reported elsewhere.

“The horse had been placed in isolation at its home farm on May 15 when it began to show signs of illness, including abnormal gait and stance and a high fever. As EHV-1 was detected in the horse's nasal swab sample, all horses at the Chester County farm were quarantined. Based on the post-mortem findings, the low levels of EHV detected on the nasal swab sample, and the absence of EHV-related illness in any of the horses on the premises, there appears to be little risk even for the horses that were in direct contact with the horse that died.

“Furthermore, the two horses that had moved off the farm prior to the horse getting sick pose an even lower risk of spreading EHV-1. These two horses have returned to the home farm, also remain under close monitoring and have shown no signs of illness.

“Following national guidelines, and in consultation with EHV regulatory experts, the horses on the home premises will remain under quarantine with monitoring for a minimum of 14 days from when the affected horse was isolated (beginning May 15). No quarantined horses have shown any signs of illness to date. EHV-1 causes illness in some horses and others may carry virus without showing clinical disease. In particular, horses that are under stress may be more likely to shed the virus.  For more information about EHV-1 go to https://aaep.org/sites/default/files/Documents/DiseaseFactsheetEHV.pdf”

So what happened here?

We reported on the outbreak alert May 21, at which time the necropsy on Out the Back Jack was not yet complete. However, a nasal swab taken while the horse was still alive indicated very low levels of EHV, which is what prompted the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to release an alert and put a quarantine in place. Equine herpesvirus is a reportable disease in Pennsylvania, meaning that any test that comes back positive for the disease must be reported to the state veterinarian, and the existence of that positive is made public knowledge.

A screenshot shows the May 17 alert text

Originally, the Sheppard operation was told the farm would be under quarantine for 21 days, as is standard in EHV cases. Now, officials say the property will be quarantined a total of 14 days, meaning there is roughly a week left that horses will not be permitted in or out of Sheppard's Ashwell Farm in West Grove, Pa. A spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture told the Paulick Report Wednesday that “the quarantine was not reduced.”

No quarantine was ever in place at Presque Isle Downs, where Sheppard shipped two horses on May 15 and competed in May 16 races. The track asked Sheppard to remove them afterwards, and both were taken back to Ashwell. Track management has not responded to the Paulick Report's requests for comment on the situation.

Curiously, Sheppard had a horse entered in the eighth race at Presque Isle on May 23 which was subsequently scratched. That horse, a first-time starter named What a Laugh, had most recently been training at Delaware Park and was listed as a stewards' scratch.

Since stewards in Pennsylvania are under orders not to speak to media, it is unclear whether the horse was scratched due to any EHV exposure concerns or if the reason, whatever it may have been, was unrelated.

The Maryland Jockey Club notified trainers earlier this week that no shippers from Presque Isle Downs would be permitted due to the potential exposure of horses there, and Stronach Group equine medical director Dr. Dionne Benson said that policy will remain in place until June 5. June 5 will mark 21 days after the last exposure of Ashwell horses to the Presque Isle backstretch.

Maryland Jockey Club has no prescribed policy for determining shipping bans due to disease outbreaks. In a region where the horse population frequently travels between tracks, farms, and training centers and across state lines, Benson said the organization keeps up-to-date and remains cautious.

“Really, you have to take these on a case by case basis in order to make good decisions,” she said. “Having a set policy doesn't work in all situations. In general, we tend to air on the side of caution in that we don't want to risk our horse populations or any neighboring tracks' horse populations.”

The New York Racing Association has also forbidden horses from Presque Isle onto its properties “until further notice.”

Here's what we still don't know: Why did the state choose to keep Sheppard's farm under quarantine while also stating “there is no EHV outbreak”? Since the Sheppard shippers were exposed to the non-outbreak, why do they remain under quarantine but other horses in their Presque Isle barn aren't? Why, if officials had concerns about the potential shedding of EHV despite the necropsy report, did they shorten the quarantine? What are neighboring racetracks supposed to do with this outbreak-no outbreak situation? And what's going on at Presque Isle—has the cat got their racing director's tongue?

Another question — Isn't there some way of alleviating this sort of confusion in future? Well, that's what the Equine Disease Communication Center was created for. The Center distributes disease outbreak alerts based on information from the state veterinarians in each U.S. state and Canadian province. Alerts include varying degrees of detail but typically mention the disease, date, county or parish, status of the affected horse, and the number of horses exposed. All of this is designed to make sure horse owners and media have a verified, current source of information on any disease outbreaks so they aren't doing exactly what we're doing now – running between reader emails, horsemen, venue management, and state officials trying to figure out what's happened and where we go from here. In this case however, it seems even a well-oiled communication system can't cut through the haze that descends whenever you try to get a straight answer out of Pennsylvania.

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