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Network to improve disease communication, monitoringAugust 2003

University of Guelph researchers and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) have teamed up to create a new equine health group to keep abreast of infectious diseases such as West Nile virus.

“The emergence of West Nile virus in horses and humans has demonstrated the importance of good communication and co-operation regarding emerging infectious diseases,” said Scott Weese, a clinical studies professor in the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) who will co-ordinate the Ontario Equine Health Network.

The network will assess endemic and epidemic infectious diseases and commicate relevant information to veterinarians and equine industry groups. It also includes Grant Maxie, Beverly McEwen and Josepha DeLay from the University’s Animal Health Laboratory, along with Drs. David Alves, Paul Innes and Bob Wright, from OMAF.

In Ontario, several different agencies are usually involved in identifying, monitoring and addressing infectious disease in horses, Weese said. “The communication network that we are establishing will ensure that important information received by one individual or group will reach all relevant individuals as quickly as possible.”

The network will distribute periodic disease updates and publish a quarterly newsletter, in addition to emailing or faxing urgent communications. “We hope that these new lines of communication will encourage a two-way dialogue among equine veterinarians about important health topics,” Weese said.

The network recently sent out its first equine infectious disease report, which included updated information on West Nile virus and other emerging diseases and diagnosis tips. It also issued its first “Disease Alert,” advising veterinarians and horse owners of the unusually high incidence of Eastern Equine Encephalitis virus in the southern United States. The virus has caused sporadic outbreaks in Ontario horses in recent years. “Communication is the key to disease surveillance and co-ordination of disease reporting is an important aspect of this program,” Weese said.

Also new this summer, the University’s Animal Health Laboratory is offering three tests previously unavailable in Ontario that can confirm potential West Nile cases in horses. Two of the tests - the IgM ELISA and the IgG ELISA - analyze blood samples from live horses. The third test - real-time PCR - can be used on any species and examines brainstem and spinal cord samples post-mortem to confirm positive results. The tests were developed with OMAF funding by AHL veterinary scientists, including Susy Carman and Davor Ojkic. Having the tests in-house at the AHL is expected to reduce turn-around times for testing by more than 50 per cent.

Last year, AHL pathologists diagnosed West Nile virus as the cause of disease in 22 of 25 suspect horses submitted for post-mortem exams. For its part, OVC diagnosed West Nile in 28 horses ranging in age from five months to 20 years. It’s estimated that another 500 to 700 horses were affected in Ontario and several thousand in Canada.

West Nile cases are expected to occur again this year, most likely from August through October, Weese said. A vaccine that is considered safe and effective for horses is now available in Canada and may reduce the number of cases. In addition, OVC a new protocol for dealing with West Nile virus cases. Six months in the making, “it’s a very detailed plan of how to treat horses, birds and small animals at OVC to reduce the spread and risk of exposure to people,” Weese said.

For further information, contact Prof. Scott Weese, Department of Clinical Studies, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 54064.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Rachelle Cooper, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982.