Monday, July 14, 2008

Swimming In A Sea of Germs

About a week or ten days ago a vet friend of mine stopped by and dropped a bombshell. Egypt had been hit with an Equine Influenza epidemic that seemed to have originated in Alexandria but it was moving quickly throughout all the provinces...spreading like wildfire, to use a good summer analogy. Equine Influenza isn't a stranger to us at all. My four weanlings all came down with coughs and runny noses in late May. No one ran much of a fever and two of them graduated to antibiotics for sore throats, but no real harm was done.

As much as we might wish it otherwise, we do share the earth with a lot of creatures, some of which make us ill. Vaccines for horses are not produced in Egypt so most of the available vaccines are imported from Europe or North America. We get local tetanus and rabies, but that's about all. Having decided to educate myself about things medical for both my animals and my human family, I looked at the vaccines that were available here for horses and decided that my horses were probably better off not vaccinated. One of the problems involved was the fact that to facilitate shipping and get more money for the kilo shipped, most of the vaccines here are "five-way" or more...five vaccines in one shot. The research that I've done on the subject indicated that vaccines are better when they are given individually and over a period of time to allow the body to recover between blows to the immune system, since that is what a vaccine is.

We've all become so used to the idea of vaccination that none of really thinks about what a vaccination is. When we get a shot to vaccinate, we are given a small dose of a disease, one that we will recover from with no appreciable after effects within a couple of weeks, giving us immunity to the disease in question. But anyone who's ever carried a fussy baby after its first vaccination or who's had a yellow fever injection, will agree that this is a blow to the immune system that can leave a body feeling pretty ratty. I recall having to double up on some vaccines for a hasty trip to some unusually germy location and being sick as, well, a dog. Imagine how the horse must feel after a shot including five vaccines at once. No thank you.

Another issue is the nature of the influenza virus itself. The flu virus is one of the fastest mutating things on this planet. It is a true pain in the neck for vaccine manufacturers because every year (at least for humans) the decision has to be made as to what the latest version or strain of the flu virus is going to be in the yearly flu shot. If they guess well, the vaccine is a success, but if they don't, it isn't so useful and people still get sick. I don't know about the US, but we have viruses racketing all over Egypt all the time, both human and animal. We are a hub of travel for Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East and there is a huge pool of human and animal bodies to absorb the various varieties that are imported on every plane landing at Cairo International.

All it takes is a horse owner to say farewell to his/her pony before leaving on holiday while wearing a sweater or jacket that gets packed to be used while riding in Egypt, a sweater that has been sneezed on, and we have free shipping. So the likelihood of the particular vaccine matching the particular strain is not all that high. In fact, this seems to have been the case here because some of the horses currently sick are competition jumpers who are required to have had the shots for competitions. Either our vaccine was a bad match, or the horse wasn't really vaccinated or something else went wrong. In fact a vaccinated horse can still get sick, but he/she won't show the symptoms while still shedding the virus and infecting everyone else in reach. I don't know if I really want to have horses around who don't show that they are sick while being infectious. And then we have the problem that horses and donkeys actually work in Egypt and the economy would be hit hard if suddenly all the donkeys carrying food from the fields were told to stay home rather than work for a month or so.

So what do we do in an influenza epidemic? Some of us are keeping our horses at home as much as possible. In my case, they haven't been off the property since we got the news and as few people and cars as possible are coming in. I have broad bands of whitewash powder in front of the gates to disinfect people and cars entering. Visitors can come to the house but the horses are off limits and the paddocks are about 100 meters away and upwind. We are giving the horses herbs to help boost the immune systems and listening carefully for any coughing that might signal that the virus has landed among us. So far so good. I don't worry that I will have a horse drop dead of the virus, but having to nurse 25 equids (donkeys and mules can get this too) really doesn't sound like fun. The horses at the pyramids stables don't have it so easy. Reports from friends who know stables there are that the horses are working as usual, sick or not. The rates of sickness there are higher and there will likely be fatalities due to the lack of care for sick horses. Horses in the pyramids will also sufffer afterwards since the stable owners are unlikely to observe the rule of thumb that a day of respiratory illness should equal a week's rest afterwards. For a bout of EI, they would be looking at a 6 week layup, something that is hardly likely to happen there. It isn't an easy decision for any of us, but I guess it depends on how important your horses are to you.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Picking Up A Mule

I have a friend who is besotted with mules. A retired petroleum engineer who is still consulting with companies here in Egypt, Bill decided that rather than buying a fast car to prove that he's still young, he'd buy a mule. His first mule, Lula was a nice little grey hinny and he's been riding around the neighbourhood on her, to the amusement of the local children. In Egypt, mules are not considered appropriate for riding, but Bill is an American and mules are more than appropriate for riding in the US. I've been encouraging him in his fascination because my experience with mules has shown me how intelligent, steady and reliable they are, so he has found a very willing partner. Bill came to me a week or so ago and said that he'd found a nice jack mule and wanted to bring him to the farm. We arranged that I would go with him to meet the soon-to-be previous owner of the mule along with a groom to help with the transport and to try out the mule for riding and a vet to eliminate any extraordinary health problems.

So off we all went to Barragil, a neighbourhood that is in transition from rural to urban near Imbaba. It is not the kind of neighbourhood that most foreigners, or for that matter most Cairenes, visit for fun, but it wasn't nearly as bad as we'd been lead to believe that it would be. Bill and his driver had arranged to meet the mule's owner at a certain corner in the area so we headed there and eventually (nothing in Egypt is straightforward) we found him. Our vet, Karim, checked the mule's legs, chest and body looking for any unrepairable damage. We had no illusions that the mule would be in perfect shape, and he wasn't. Time being driven with a cart in a headpiece that included a thin piece of rope to apply pressure to his nose had left him with a scar across his nose. But this, we assumed, would respond to things like Vitamin E capsules applied to the area to heal it. His lungs were clear, he had no tendon issues and he trotted out cleanly without trying to kill the groom sitting on his back.

His feet, happily a fixable item, were in pretty bad shape. He had three shoes, each of a different type and the hoof of each was a different height. How he could work in any degree of comfort was beyond me. But I'd already arranged with the farrier to come and do something about the trim of his feet. At our place he wouldn't be needing shoes at all. We don't work on asphalt. One of the interesting things about his initial shoeing was the fact that there were pads in place on two of his feet rather randomly, pads constructed of old tires.

Once the inspection was over to our satisfaction, the problem remained of transport to the farm. A pick up truck was rented and it was backed up to a small hill alongside the roadway. Unfortunately the hill was a hill of garbage, and quite reasonably the mule, who we'd found was called Antar, was quite unwilling to use it to launch himself into the pickup. The groom outsmarted him by tying a scarf over his eyes so that he couldn't see what he was walking on, and he was quickly loaded into the truck. Throughout all this we never collected a crowd of more than about half a dozen spectators, practically a record for foreigners doing something weird in Cairo.

In due course, we all arrived at the farm where Antar was more than happy to be unloaded. It was dinnertime when we arrived and the horses couldn't have cared less about Antar's arrival with the exception of Lula, Bill's hinny. She ran up and down the large paddock calling to him as if to say "Look, everyone. One of my kind. I'm not alone. I have family." Antar, on the other hand, was more interested in getting into a clean paddock filled with rice straw and a huge bathtub of clean drinking water. We've tried him under saddle and he's a gentleman, brave of heart and willing to cross large puddles, and he seems to have no real vices. I think that Bill did quite well.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani