The Equine Armageddon

Concerns are rising about the danger of African Horse Sickness reaching the United Kingdom within the next few years. If an epidemic of AHS were to break out in the UK, it is estimated that as much as 90% of Britain’s horses could be killed. Most horses have no natural immunity, and the only known vaccine is so unreliable that it is just as likely to kill the horse as save it. To put it bluntly, it would be a catastrophe on a level never seen before, decimating horse numbers and threatening the commercial aspects of horse ownership and trading.

As the name suggests, the disease is normally found on the African continent, although there have been previous outbreaks as close as Spain and Portugal. AHS requires hot and humid conditions to spread, so Britain has managed to avoid the scourge by merit of its usually bleak and blustery climate. However, you may have noticed that for the last few months we have been in the grip of an unusual heatwave. While one heatwave will not be enough to incubate an AHS pandemic, it does speak to a larger looming issue – climate change.

Hothouse Earth

A new study has suggested that there is now almost no chance of reversing the damage that has been done to the global climate over the past half century, and we are rapidly heading towards what scientists describe as “Hothouse Earth”. The climate system is so finely balanced that a rise of just 2°C could unleash all kinds of natural disasters that would previously have never been possible, including tropical diseases spreading through Europe. As none of the indigenous creatures (including most humans) will have natural immunity to foreign pathogens, the threat is extreme. We will also see myriad other issues, such as food shortages, rising sea levels, and entire regions of the planet becoming totally uninhabitable. Also, violent crime tends to rise during hotter temperatures, so it’s an all-round pessimistic vision.

Action and Apathy

The second issue is that there is currently very little preventative action being taken to stop AHS being transferred to the UK. DEFRA mandates that imported horses from at-risk countries outside the European Union are routinely tested for African Horse Sickness, but AHS is spread by midges, and there is concern that infected insects could be transported to the UK on trade ships or in commercial aircraft. The only thing that currently stops them spreading in this way is the inhospitable climate. If the aforementioned climate change becomes a reality, the current safeguards will prove woefully inadequate. Moreover, there is a shocking lack of diligence on the part of many UK horse owners and traders. The Equine Disease Coalition has released a report demonstrating that even the most basic biosecurity measures are not being taken. The government does have a specific regulation and control strategy for AHS should an outbreak occur, but that would be, so to speak, closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.


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