Kenilworth Quarantine Station
(Photo : Racing South Africa)
A BREATHTHROUGH FOR
AFRICAN HORSE SICKNESS
The world is a tough enough place without recessions, and it’s even tougher when money is in short supply. Family businesses, big corporations and sovereign states all feel threatened, and when it comes to sharing markets or fair trade, many seem to abandon the values they were brought up with.
For decades now, South Africa has battled to convince the international community about the right to take its place in the community of international horse exporters. While a political stand-off during the apartheid years was understandable, there’s no longer any scientific justification for the position South Africa finds itself in. For those who don’t know, in 1995 the writer attended the International Breeders’ Conference in Paris, and managed to persuade the EU and American veterinary authorities in attendance that with the right mechanisms in place, there was no reason to fear the receipt of South African horses. The deal was consummated in the presence of a group of vets and scientists representing the biggest exporting nations, in a Paris hotel room at three in the morning. By then we’d consumed two bottles of Black Bush whiskey, and in Brussels today, the deal is still formally known as the “Black Bush Accord”. So anxious were we as a nation to recommence our exports, our technocrats readily agreed to the inclusion of a provision that would automatically suspend exports from South Africa for a period of two years in the event of an outbreak of African Horse Sickness in what was described in the founding memorandium as the surveillance zone in the Western Cape. After all, there was little reason to fear any outbreak, as there’d been no anecdotal evidence of one in living memory.
The first few years were uneventful, and it looked as if the long history in that vicinity would prevail AHS-free for decades, if not centuries to come. We hadn’t reckoned on climate change though, and within a decade, an outbreak had occurred. There was an agonizing two year wait before we could resume again. In the meantime, South African horses had begun to show their mettle on international racecourses, and they succeeded to a degree that far surpassed our wildest expectations.
At one point, in Dubai, South African-trained runners took three (50%) of the six events carded at the world’s richest race meeting. A year on, 33% fell to our horses, and that was repeated another year later. Tragically, the whole process was interrupted by yet another outbreak in the Mamre district of the Western Cape some 18 months ago, and once again suspension kicked in. All efforts since then to have the ban lifted in advance of the expiry of the two years have been thwarted at every turn, even by our most ardent trading partners. In a manner of speaking, South Africa has become a victim of its own success, and there are strong suspicions in certain quarters that some of our competitors, themselves adept at the application of non-tariff protection measures, are having a say in matters.
Remember, during the Colonial wars, South Africa exported more than half a million horses to foreign shores, and these animals played a vital role in the affairs of the British Empire. Since Britain held dominion over more than 40% of the earth’s surface at the time, what it said went, and our horses were able to travel the world at will. The fact is, they went by ship, and the journeys were relatively arduous, taking at least a month to six weeks to reach places such as India, China, the Middle East and Europe. The boats served as quarantine stations, and any animals infected with any disease, either overcame it while in transit or they perished before they reached their destinations.
This may sound a little callous, but since there was no antidote for these diseases in those days, back home the same fate awaited them even when they weren’t exported.
The point here is, no horse ever left these shores and infected another country with any disease, let alone African Horse Sickness, and so the trepidation with which recipient countries appear to approach the problem these days, appears overplayed.
From a scientific perspective, it’s worth noting that South Africa has built a quarantine facility at Kenilworth racecourse which compares with the best and the most secure in the world. Those charged with the responsibility of overseeing the export protocols include some of the most competent scientists and veterinarians in the world, and they happen to be the foremost authorities on African Horse Sickness. Besides, a new test able to diagnose the presence of Horse Sickness in an animal within 24 hours (the PCR test) has recently been developed (validation pending), and besides the usual quarantine precautions involved in ensuring that horses leaving our shores are free of any disease, this test will provide an instant on-the-spot indication of a horses’ status just hours before departure.
Armed with these scientific measures, and backed up by a history of responsible management over many decades, the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) decided late last week to adopt a new code for the export of South African horses. This announcement is the game-breaker we’ve all been waiting for. The new code embraces the use of the PCR test as well, which means it won’t be capable of implementation until such time as the test has been finally validated by an independent international authority. But once the process is complete, it will be open to South Africa to renegotiate its terms of trade with its principal partners, and with visits to South Africa in general and to Summerhill in particular, of government delegations from China and Russia taking place in the month of June, it’s a matter of “sunshine, baby”. Few of these things are without impediments though, and while we hope it’s plain sailing from here, the one thing we know is that if there are any obstacles, it’s not in the nature of our countrymen to give up.