October 27th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Key issues that could determine the election outcome

QUEENSLAND: ALP cannot escape Heiner affair

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Is Kevin Rudd set to trounce the Coalition

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Surprises in store in SA's federal poll

VICTORIA: Abortion - an inadequate inquiry

EQUINE INFLUENZA INQUIRY: AQIS quarantine protocol a sick joke

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Global financial crisis - is the end in sight?

SCHOOLS: Surviving ideological bias in the classroom

EDUCATION: What can Australian schools learn from Asia?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Theatre of the bull-ring / More significant than the election

SPECIAL FEATURE: Australian Aborigines at the crossroads

UNITED STATES: Has the US forgotten the importance of soft power?

OPINION: Violent Jihadism - this century's nightmare


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AQIS quarantine protocol a sick joke

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, October 27, 2007
The Equine Influenza Inquiry has heard alarming claims of the failure of Australia's quarantine regime. Peter Westmore reports.

At the opening of the commission of inquiry into equine influenza (horse flu) on September 30, 2007, counsel assisting the inquiry, Mr Tony Meagher SC, gave a revealing insight into the breakdown of quarantine arrangements for horses coming into the country.

At the outset, he pointed out that equine influenza (EI) "is a highly contagious viral disease, which can cause rapidly spreading outbreaks of respiratory disease in horses". He added that, "until August 2007, Australia and New Zealand were the only countries with significant equine industries that remained free of equine influenza".

Mr Meagher said that EI was first identified at the Eastern Creek quarantine station run by the AQIS (Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service), in a stallion which had been imported from Ireland for the Coolmore Stud. The stallion was certified to have been vaccinated against equine influenza before coming to Australia.

Other Coolmore stallions which had come from Ireland and the United States subsequently were diagnosed with the disease.

Spread of disease

It later appeared among horses which had participated in an equestrian event near Maitland in New South Wales, then spread throughout New South Wales and Queensland, including to the thoroughbred racing industry.

"Currently, in New South Wales and Queensland, there are estimated to be in excess of 33,000 hoses reported as infected with the virus," he said.

Biochemical analysis of the virus shows that "it is almost identical to a virus known as the Wisconsin H3N8 strain, which was the subject of an outbreak in Wisconsin in the United States in 2003".

Although this strain has also been involved in a recent outbreak in Japan, the evidence suggests that the disease came in horses from Ireland or the United States rather than from Japan, as horses from Japan off-loaded in Melbourne showed no trace of the disease.

The question is: how did the disease escape from imported horses who were supposed to be in quarantine?

Counsel assisting the inquiry reported that although the imported horses at Sydney Airport were unloaded into a quarantine facility at the airport, there were a significant number of people present, including "the grooms who had accompanied the horses, the truck drivers, other grooms from the relevant studs meeting the horses at the airport, representatives of IRT and Crispin Bennett [the horse transport companies], airport ground handling staff, representatives of the studs and owners of the horses and, in one case, a film crew".

Footage taken by the film crew showed "a number of persons present, most of whom are not wearing protective clothing".

Mr Meagher said that detailed investigation had revealed a number of areas of possible breakdown in quarantine, both before and after the horses' arrival in Australia.

After referring to issues associated with the horses' inadequate quarantine overseas before coming to Australia, Mr Meagher said: "The next issue is whether each of the horses was effectively vaccinated against equine influenza, as was certified to be the case, and there is an issue about that.

"The next is whether there were any current and documented AQIS procedures detailing what was to happen from the point of arrival of the horses to the time of their arrival at Eastern Creek, and again there are clearly going to be issues about the existence and implementation of such procedures.

"The next is whether the apparently required documentations and certificates were produced for each of the horses, and again there are questions about that.

"Next, there are issues as to whether unauthorised or unnecessary persons were present during the unloading and transfer of the horses to the trucks, and whether any of those persons came into contact with the horses.

"The next issue is whether the persons present and handling the horses wore any or sufficient protective clothing and subsequently took any, or any adequate, decontamination measures.

"There are also issues as to the subsequent movements of the persons present or having contact with the horses and the subsequent movements of any equipment which came into contact with the horses during the course of their unloading."

Eastern Creek

At the Eastern Creek quarantine station, there were further breakdowns in the quarantine regime.

"Apart from supervising the unloading of the stallions and cleaning of trucks, the AQIS officers do not appear to have any definitive role as far as biosecurity is concerned in the 14 days of post-arrival quarantine.

"An AQIS vet attends the horses within a day or so of their arrival and takes reference blood samples.

"Otherwise, the welfare and health of the horses [are] catered to by the grooms, private vets and others, such as farriers and dentists, who attend during the quarantine period."

Mr Meagher said: "Private vets and others who entered the station usually did so after-hours, and gained entry either with keys and access cards issued to them or by being led in by the grooms. Those vets and others were also able to, and did, drive their vehicles into the equine enclosure and near to the horse stalls.

"Facilities were provided for the vets to change into protective clothing and boots. There were also washing and showering facilities in the grooms' quarters. However, it would appear that some private vets and others engaged to tend to the horses did so without wearing any protective clothing and without carrying out any decontamination procedures before leaving the quarantine station," he said.

Mr Meagher added that "there also do not appear to be any reliable records kept of access of persons into and out of the equine enclosure. Finally, there are issues as to whether there was any documented and current work instruction as to biosecurity measures which was adopted within the station in the sense that it was being complied with and enforced".

Likely scenarios

Mr Meagher said the two most likely scenarios for the outbreak were at the time of their unloading at Sydney Airport, or from the Eastern Creek quarantine station, both of which were under the supervision of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).

It also shows that AQIS completely failed to fulfil its statutory function to keep this serious disease out of Australia.

The escape of equine influenza from facilities controlled by or under the supervision of AQIS shows the disastrous consequences of human error. But more fundamentally, it suggests Australia has a flawed quarantine system which has largely privatised the care of horses in quarantine, and utilises a trusting, even naïve, reliance on both individuals and organisations outside AQIS to control the spread of exotic diseases.

The horse-racing industry warned AQIS years ago that changed procedures, including the use of private veterinary staff, could lead to the escape of the EI virus into the Australian horse population.

The ABC reported that the Australian Racing Board wrote to the Federal Government in 2004 and 2005 warning it had concerns about a relaxation of horse quarantine standards.

The Racing Board's chief executive, Andrew Harding, said the letters "drew particular attention to the devolution of responsibility from AQIS vets to private physicians examining horses when they first arrive in the country, which is the point at which it is most critical to detect infection". (ABC Rural, NSW, September 3, 2007).

"We've always been worried about equine influenza; it is the worst disease that could have come into the country and it was only quarantine that was protecting us," Mr Harding told Brisbane's Courier-Mail (September 3, 2007).

"We knew from experience in other countries … that a breakdown in quarantine could let the disease in, as happened in South Africa in 1987 and 2003, and we simply did not want that to happen here."

The privatisation led to an "abrogation of responsibility" for ensuring imported horses were free of disease, Mr Harding said.

"It was always done by vets supplied by AQIS (Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service); it was their only job," he said.

"This has now been devolved to private vets and we just didn't think that was good enough."

Mr Harding said there was no margin for compromise in maintaining Australia's biosecurity. It needed "100 per cent effort, or you may as well not do anything".

These warnings were dismissed by AQIS at the time, with tragic consequences.

It is a matter of record that AQIS's response to the horse-racing industry was disturbingly similar to its response to warnings about the illegal importation of plant materials in Emerald, central Queensland, some years ago.

Ultimately, an exotic disease, citrus canker, was discovered in several orchards in the area. To contain the outbreak, every citrus tree had to be destroyed, with serious consequences for the industry in the area. No one was ever prosecuted over the outbreak.

AQIS also had inadequate controls on the import of ornamental fish, which a prominent Australian veterinarian has suggested are the source of exotic fish diseases which have now infected Australian fish species with no natural resistance.

Until there is a complete overhaul of Australia's quarantine system, disastrous events such as the outbreak of equine influenza will continue to occur.

- Peter Westmore

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