Internationally renowned Thai equine vet Dr Siraya Chunekamrai is calling for urgent help to to contain a lethal outbreak of African Horse Sickness (AHS) that has already killed 500 horses in Thailand and has the potential to kill thousands more.
Dr Chunekamrai, Chair of the the Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation, and Vice President of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, is treating many affected animals and leading urgent vaccination efforts by equine veterinary volunteers in the country. She has also launched an international fund-raising appeal to support the purchase of essentials, including vector protection nets to protect horses from midges of the genus Culicoides that spread the disease.
AHS is listed as a notifiable disease by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) because of its severity and the risk of rapid global spread. Horses have no natural immunity with treatment options limited to rest, isolation, palliative care and euthanasia. Disease spread can be limited by keeping horses in stables behind fine insect netting, but even the tiniest gaps between the netting and stable walls have to be filled with sealant in order to stop the insects squeezing through. Netting and stables are also required to be sprayed with pyrethroid insecticide.
The Lampang Pony Welfare Foundation works to improve the welfare of ponies and horses in Thailand and is focussing its efforts on managing the outbreak of AHS in the central area of the country, which has been particularly hard hit. Many Thai ponies, an ancient breed in danger of extinction, are being affected, together with cross-breed horses. As these horses are essential to their underprivileged owners’ livelihoods, the effects of the AHS outbreak on the human population, already struggling with financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are potentially disastrous.
According to Dr Chunekamrai, a key challenge facing her team lies in educating owners that mosquito netting does not protect horses as the vectors are so small and can get through it. Fine insect netting purchased with funds from her appeal will be used to protect the horses of those who depend on their horses but who cannot afford or do not realize the need for finer netting. Once the need for nets and vector protection is met, any remaining funds will be used for feed and other essentials in the care of the ponies.
She explained: “This outbreak is particularly deadly with horses dying quickly. They present with acute signs and with both cardiac and pulmonary forms. Clinical signs include fever, depression, conjunctivitis, swelling above the eyes and lips and dyspnea. The mortality rate is very high at around 95%.”
She said that vaccines are not being administered to horses until they have undergone polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and serology testing to ensure that only uninfected animals are vaccinated. In the meantime, horses are placed behind effective netting and microchipped so that they can be easily identified later for vaccination. Containment efforts are also underway to stop the virus from spreading inside and outside of Thailand.
Dr Chunekamrai added: “This is a welfare disaster for hundreds, possibly thousands of horses in Thailand. It is equally disastrous for their owners, many of whom depend on them for their livelihood. Despite the restrictions in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, veterinarians across the country are working tirelessly to reduce the suffering of horses in Thailand and to help owners to protect their animals. We are determined to control the disease and regain our country-freedom from AHS status.
“There is much work to be done before we achieve our goal, however, and we are desperate for funds to help us buy netting, insecticides, feed and other essentials to help poorer Thai people to protect their horses from this dreadful disease. We would be grateful for any donations to support our work at this difficult and heart-breaking time. Donations can be made here: https://www.lampangponywelfare.org/special-giving