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


Dina said...

We hope for the best for your farm and the country. Thank you for this explanation of the problem.

One Red Horse said...

It has been a while since you have posted, I am hoping all is well with your and your horses.

Please accept the "I Love Your Blog" Award. Go here to pick it up

Kim said...

Hey Maryanne,
It is so worrying when a kid or a pet gets sick and when you have to worry about the risk of contagion to others in the stable. . . I can imagine that the worry is giving you sleepless nights.

I hope you and your horses come away unaffected by the current strain.