December 22nd 2007

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Bali climate conference disconnected from reality

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Liberals not knowing which way to turn

FILM CLASSIFICATION: Porn film case dismissed by Federal Court

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Can Rudd restore an impartial public service?

FOREIGN DEBT: Last chance to avoid becoming a banana republic?

QUARANTINE: AQIS locks stable door after horse flu has bolted

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: US and Israel differ over Iran nuclear capabilities

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Christmas miscellany / Shopping spree / If the Liberals keep their nerve / One way of spending the surplus / Developing expensive tastes

GENOCIDE: Stalin's Ukrainian famine - the Holodomor

OPINION: Four factors that have shaped the new PM

OPINION: Trojan Horse inside Amnesty International

The abused generation (letter)

John Howard's dignified farewell (letter)

Asbestos cynicism (letter)

Malthusian spectre (letter)

CHRISTMAS POEM: The adoration of the Magi

CINEMA: The Golden Compass - well-crafted fantasy film 'about killing God'

BOOKS: THIRD WAYS: Family-centred economies and why they disappeared, by Allan C. Carlson


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AQIS locks stable door after horse flu has bolted

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, December 22, 2007
New evidence shows a near-complete failure of quarantine which clearly contributed to the horse flu outbreak, reports Peter Westmore.

Astonishing new evidence has come to light about the possible causes of last August's equine influenza (horse flu) outbreak, which has devastated the thoroughbred and racing industries in New South Wales and Queensland.

A special commission of inquiry has heard further testimony about the failure of quarantine at both Sydney airport and at its Eastern Creek quarantine station, from where the disease is believed to have escaped.

The inquiry, ordered by the previous Federal Government, is being conducted by a former High Court justice, Ian Callinan.

The inquiry heard that responsibility for the care of stallions at the Eastern Creek quarantine station was given to experienced horse-handlers (called head grooms) employed by the people bringing them into Australia.

Under the AQIS protocol in operation at Eastern Creek, a head groom from a particular stable was responsible for ensuring that everyone - farriers, vets and visitors - should comply with Australia's quarantine laws.

The head groom for International Racehorse Transport at the quarantine station at the time of the equine influenza (EI) outbreak, Hirose Tetsuhito, did not understand that this was his role, nor did anyone from AQIS inform him that this was his role, nor ensure that it was complied with.

AQIS responsibility

He said he "understood that the biosecurity issues, such as the supervision or monitoring of adherence to quarantine protocols by other grooms and visitors into the station including vets and farriers, were AQIS responsibilities and it is not my duties to do so".

From August 4 - just before the EI outbreak in Sydney was first observed - Mr Hirose was looking after horses, including five from the United Kingdom where there had been four outbreaks of EI early in 2007.

Mr Hirose had never seen a horse with EI, and was unaware that there had been an EI outbreak in the country of origin of his horses. Among the horses was Desert King, who had an elevated temperature (a symptom of horse flu) from the first time of his arrival at Eastern Creek on August 4.

Because several of his horses were sick, he thought it was "travel sickness", so his employer brought in an Australian vet, Dr Andrew Argyle, who treated the horses with antibiotics. However, Dr Argyle did not sign in as required by AQIS protocols, nor did Mr Hirose notify AQIS of the horses' condition.

Mr Hirose took delivery of a second consignment of horses on August 7. Of these, two (Golden Snake and Rakti) showed signs of elevated temperature immediately on arrival at Eastern Creek. They were also treated with antibiotics by Dr Argyle on the same day.

Craig Atkinson, the truck-driver from Coolmore Stud, who carried stallions from the airport to Eastern Creek on August 7, disinfected the horse area of the truck, but not the front of the truck where the grooms travel. He had never disinfected the grooms' area on the truck.

He had never received written instructions, either from Coolmore or AQIS, on disinfection of his vehicle.

Basil Keane, a person who was employed by Coolmore and who had worked with horses for 25 years, was sent to Japan to accompany two stallions who came to Australia on August 8.

He stayed at a quarantine facility at Shizunai, Hokkaido, run by the Japanese Bloodstock Breeders Association where the stallions, Rock of Gibraltar and Stravinsky, were in pre-export quarantine before coming to Australia.

Mr Keane said they were attended by vets who did not wear special clothing and a farrier who also did not wear special clothing. Horse flu (EI) was reported in various places in Hokkaido in August 2007.

Mr Keane accompanied the stallions to Australia. The transcript records the following exchange with Mr Meagher, assisting the inquiry:

Q: In paragraph 15, you say at the end of the paragraph: "I had been cleared by Customs on the aircraft, but do not recall having been spoken to by anybody about quarantine matters, whether on the aircraft or at the LTF [Livestock Transfer Facility]." Did anybody at the transfer facility ask you whether you were going to Eastern Creek or where you were going?

A: No.

Q: Did anyone suggest to you that you should take any particular care to stay away from horses?

A: No.

Q: Did anyone suggest that you should change your clothes or wash as soon as you left the facility?

A: No.

* * *

No instructions

Jim Carey, a senior groom employed by Coolmore Stud, travelled to Ireland in July to accompany stallions coming to Australia. He had no instructions from Coolmore or AQIS regarding quarantine issues, nor did he have any knowledge of equine influenza (EI).

At this Irish stud, people did not wear protective clothing in handling horses which were in pre-export quarantine. These horses then were on the same flight as two other stallions, Rakti and Golden Snake, which arrived in Sydney on August 7, 2007.

Mr Carey said that he received no instructions on quarantine matters at either the airport nor at Eastern Creek. He returned the following day to help unload Coolmore horses coming from Japan. These were taken to adjoining stables at Eastern Creek.

Proposals rejected

Dr Phil Widdup, who heads animal and plant post-arrival quarantine programs in New South Wales, has only two full-time vets, two part-time vets and two contract vets to manage his responsiblities.

He had tried to get AQIS headquarters to employ additional staff at Eastern Creek and to improve quarantine standards at Sydney airport, but both these proposals had been rejected by the AQIS head office in Canberra.

Dr Widdup said that the national manager of quarantine had never clarified - despite Dr Widdup's requests over several years for him to do so - whether AQIS officers had the power to prevent people entering the livestock-handling area at Sydney airport, because it was not a quarantine-approved area.

He confirmed he had not been wearing protective clothing at the airport, but said it was because he was not personally handling the horses.

Dr Widdup confirmed that the horses imported from Japan, Rock of Gibraltar and Stravinsky, had not been vaccinated within four months of import, as required by AQIS certification, but had complied with a Japanese certificate which stated that they had been vaccinated against EI within six months of the pre-export quarantine period.

One of the AQIS contract vets spotted this, and drew it to Dr Widdup's attention. The matter was referred to Canberra, but nothing was done about it.

There was evidence of a serious decline in quarantine standards at Eastern Creek between 1999 and 2007, as a document was found in a cupboard of a disused shower block at Eastern Creek which said that vets and other visitors coming in close proximity to horses had to wear overalls and boots supplied by AQIS, and wash and shower before leaving the facility.

This was not in operation in 2007.

Dr Widdup was asked to confirm that "there was no effort on the part of AQIS prior to the outbreak to audit whether instructions and procedures were being complied with at Eastern Creek quarantine station". Dr Widdup said, "I accept that."

Appearing before the inquiry, Brad Hinze, a Coolmore farrier, admitted that he had trimmed the feet of stallions from both Ireland and Japan at the Eastern Creek quarantine station on August 14, and had not worn protective clothing when treating these horses, nor did he change clothes or shower before leaving the facility on that day.

He said he had not been asked to do so by any AQIS staff.


There was cross-examination about whether he might have treated a horse on his drive back to Coolmore Stud, which is north-west of Newcastle, but Mr Hinze denied it.

The evidence shows a near-complete failure of quarantine which clearly contributed to the escape of the disease. While operating procedures have since been tightened significantly, this is a case of closing the stable-door after the horse (or the influenza virus) has bolted.

- Peter Westmore

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