Horses get sick, don’t they – the final cough

November 30 – Day 121

Thoroughbreds are majestic as they run – Patsy Watson


The outbreak of equine influenza slowed through November and December. Governments in Queensland and New South Wales held their breath as notifications grew scarce. Queensland’s last reported case of equine influenza occurred on Christmas Day, an unwanted gift. Four months after the outbreak in Sydney, more than 8000 properties in Queensland and New South Wales had been infected.


The outbreak had peaked and was petering out. Though Federal and State Governments, and the industry, were slow to react, the fight against the virus had been won. It was the first viral disaster Australia’s racing industry had faced. Thousands of horses got sick, yet racing resumed on 1 December, before the spread had ceased.


Illness equalises everything. Viruses that ravage a population never come at a good time. For the horse industry, it was devastating, affecting every major carnival from Melbourne to Bundaberg.


Some horses could run, others couldn’t. The outbreak cost the industry and Australia’s governments millions of dollars. Many lessons, like washing hands, were learned.


Expensive lessons are always the worst.


Tuesday 29 January – Day 181


Primary Industries Minister Tim Mulherin said the Green Zone that covered most of the state was poised to revert to a White Zone, where horses could move freely by 1 February. ‘The last five months have been really tough for horse owners and for the industries that rely on them,’ he said. ‘But everyone’s hard work has finally paid off.’


Mulherin trumped the DPIs strategy of restricted movement, quarantine measures and the vaccination program. Eradication, he said, would happen sooner than the industry expected. ‘There have been no new cases of infection reported since Christmas,’ he said. ‘The longer we go without seeing new cases, the more confident we are that the disease has burnt out.’


From 1 February, owners in the Green Zone, which remained free from the virus, could move their horses within the White Zone, which covered states unaffected by the crisis. Hoses could move interstate without tests or quarantine, though a waybill was still needed. ‘If everything continues to go well and our surveillance doesn’t find anything of concern, the plan of attack is to also accelerate other changes,’ Mulherin said.


Queensland’s outbreak never made it beyond the south-east’s Red Zone. It had been contained within five months. The state, Mulherin said, could be declared free of equine influenza by June.


By 31 January, more than 50,000 New South Wales horses and 62,000 Queensland horses in had been vaccinated. The vaccine cost the Federal Government millions.


Wednesday 27 February – Day 200


The Queensland Government officially removed the Red Zone, allowing horse owners to move their animals without restrictions, as long as they had a waybill.


Lifting movement restrictions was largely academic. The government believed the outbreak was over. Queensland’s chief vet Ron Glanville said the government was planning to study lessons learned during the crisis. ‘We’ll be doing a fair bit of debriefing after this is over,’ he said. ‘So we can capture those lessons and implement them for the future.’


DPI Minister Tim Mulherin and his department were preparing its case to have Queensland declared free of the disease.


The following day, 28 February, New South Wales, where the virus broke out, was declared free from equine influenza.


Queensland had to wait longer. Eleven months after the first outbreak at Morgan Park, Queensland was declared free of equine influenza on 26 June 2008.


Justice Ian Callinan


In April 2008, Justice Ian Callinan handed down his report into the Australian outbreak of Equine Influenza. The virus had cost betting agency Tabcorp $327 million in lost earnings. The Queensland Government had spent $13.2 million by 31 January 2008 on eradication programs and expected the eventual cost would be $17.172 million.


That was on top of the $20 million rescue package Bligh implemented for the industry.


By 28 February 2008, the Federal Government had provided $227.9 million to individuals and businesses whose primary source of income was affected by the outbreak. It spent millions more on eradication.


The estimated cost to the industry and Australia’s governments was $1 billion. But Justice Callinan said that was just a guess. ‘It is, in my opinion, unlikely that it will ever be possible to calculate accurately the total cost of the outbreak,’ he said.


The inquiry found the virus detected at Eastern Creek was identical to the virus that infected horses in Centennial Parklands Equestrian Centre. It was an H3N8 sub-type of the equine influenza virus, identical to the virus responsible for Japan’s outbreak in August 2007.


Have horse, will travel.


Justice Callinan found:


The best explanation for the simultaneous presence of infected horses at Eastern Creek and Spotswood Quarantine Stations is that there was a common source of infection and that it came with the horses from Japan. That conclusion is consistent not only with the analyses of blood samples taken from the horses but also with the fact that the horses from Japan underwent pre-export quarantine on the island of Hokkaido between 17 July and 6 August, where subsequently there were several notifications of outbreaks of equine influenza, among them outbreaks at places where three of the stallions and six of the mares had undergone pre-export quarantine.


It is for these reasons that I concluded that one of the four horses from Japan received into Eastern Creek on 8 August, the stallion Snitzel, was likely to have been infected with equine influenza on arrival there and that one or more of the other horses from Japan that arrived in Sydney with Snitzel might also have been contaminated with the virus but not infected by it. I also concluded that some of the horses from Japan received into Spotswood on 8 August were infected with the virus.


Subsequent analyses of blood samples taken from the horses at Eastern Creek and Spotswood established that one of the four Japanese horses at Eastern Creek and seven of the Japanese horses at Spotswood had become infected with equine influenza at some stage before 13 August, when blood samples were first taken while they were in post-arrival quarantine. Analyses of the blood samples of the other horses at Eastern Creek—from Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States—did not establish that any of them were infected with the virus on arrival in quarantine.


It was Snitzel, from Japan, who carried the virus with him. Snitzel, through no fault of his own, started the outbreak. Justice Callinan made 38 recommendations. His criticism of AQIS was scathing. Quarantine at Eastern Creek wasn’t up to standard. Simply, AQIS didn’t enforce procedure in New South Wales. The virus went from Eastern Creek to the Maitland Event and into Queensland before authorities and the industry had been alerted.


Justice Callinan went on:


The most likely explanation remains that the virus escaped from Eastern Creek on the person, clothing or equipment of a groom, veterinarian, farrier or other person who had contact with an infected horse and who then left the Quarantine Station without cleaning or disinfecting adequately or at all. The timing of the Maitland event and the emergence of clinical signs in Eastern Creek strongly suggest that this is most likely to have occurred in the period after 10 August 2007.


Two days after Snitzel landed in Australia, the disease escaped. The Federal Government’s $616 million spend on quarantine was wasted because someone at Eastern Creek ‘left the Quarantine Station without cleaning or disinfecting adequately or at all.’


Eastern Creek Quarantine Station in Blacktown opened in 1979 with 90 stables, 597 dog kennels and 72 cat cages. Improved international quarantine methods meant by 2000, horses were required to spend 14 days in approved international quarantine facilities instead of three months before being imported to Australia, were they spent another 14 days in quarantine.


The method usually worked, until 2007 when Snitzel came in sick. The virus, so intent on spreading, needed multiple hosts. At Eastern Creek, it found them. Justice Callinan found the Maitland Event was catastrophic for the industry.


Epidemiological tracing of the disease as it affected the general horse population of New South Wales and Queensland fairly clearly established that the outbreak was spread by horses that had competed at the Maitland Event.


Justice Callinan’s 38 recommendations were implemented. Australia’s governments and the industry had no choice. The Callinan Inquiry led to improvements in quarantine. Trainers, farriers, vets and owners had to wash their hands after touching horses.


Eleven years ago, Australia was declared free of equine influenza. There hasn’t been a case since.


It doesn’t mean it won’t happen again.


In March 2015, Professor Mark von Itzstein was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences. It was another accolade for the Professor who helped humanity by developing a drug to combat the flu.


During the Equine Influenza crisis, Professor von Itzstein said the virus shared the same sub-type as the human flu. He warned the next virus could mutate and become zoonotic, transferring from animals to humans. Professor von Itzstein said humanity must be prepared. ‘I am working to prevent another crisis,’ he said.


A zoonotic outbreak needs a mutation to spread.


And slack quarantine.



Read Part 1 HERE
Read Part 2 HERE
Read Part 3 HERE
Read Part 4 HERE
Read Part 5 HERE
Read Part 6 HERE



Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


Do you really enjoy the Almanac concept?
And want to ensure it continues in its current form, and better? To help keep things ticking over pleaseconsider making your own contribution.

Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE
One off financial contribution – CLICK HERE
Regular financial contribution (monthly EFT) – CLICK HERE


About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. A wonderful series of pieces, Matt.
    Thanks. I thoroughly enjoyed them all.

  2. matt watson says

    Thanks Smokie,
    It sat idle a long time…
    Glad you enjoyed it!!

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    This was brilliant Matt. Thanks.

Leave a Comment