African horse sickness - what is it and what is the risk to Australia?

Region: Greater Darwin, Katherine Region, Barkly Region, Central Australia | Topic: Biosecurity
May 2021

Horse with African horse sickness

Caption: In an outbreak report published by the World Organization for Animal Health in 2008 | Photo: World Horse Welfare.

African horse sickness is a serious viral disease of horses which is spread by biting midges. It can also affect donkeys, mules, and, less commonly, camels and also dogs which have eaten infected horse meat. There is no effective treatment or prevention for African horse sickness and up to 90% of horses who get the disease will die.

African horse sickness isn’t in Australia, however it has recently been detected in South East Asia, with Malaysia and Thailand reporting outbreaks of disease for the first time in 2020. Infected insects could come into Australia on wind currents.

Horses with African horse sickness usually become very sick suddenly, and will rapidly deteriorate and die. Some of the signs can include:

  • swelling of the face and eyelids
  • swelling of the head, neck and chest
  • difficulty breathing, with or without frothy
  • discharge from the nostrils.

There is no effective treatment or prevention for this disease.

An outbreak of African horse sickness in Australia could have a devastating impact on the Australian horse industry. The Berrimah Veterinary Laboratories is currently undertaking research to determine which species of biting insects in northern Australia would be capable of spreading the virus. Australia has strict import conditions on equids to prevent the entry of this and other equine diseases.

African horse sickness is a notifiable disease and any suspect case must be reported to the chief veterinary officer.

If you notice severe illness or sudden death in horses contact your veterinarian or the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888 immediately.

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