Equine infectious anemia shows up in horses across the Prairies

Equine infectious anemia is a reportable illness in Canada with no cure or vaccine. Horses diagnosed with it are either euthanized or quarantined for life.  |  Mike Sturk photo

The disease, which is also known as swamp fever, has been found in nine animals in Saskatchewan and six in Alberta so far this year

Nine horses in Saskatchewan and six in Alberta have been diagnosed with equine infectious anemia so far this year.

Six of the Saskatchewan horses are in the Meadow Lake region and one each in the rural municipalities of Big River, Lakeview and Beaver River.

Directly across the border in Alberta, there has been one confirmed case in the municipality of Bonnyville and two in Athabasca. Two Alberta horses in the Clear Hills region and one in the Red Deer area have also been confirmed with the illness.

The number of cases confirmed this year is nearing the total of 14 confirmed for all of 2018.

EIA, also called swamp fever, is a reportable illness in Canada with no cure or vaccine. Horses diagnosed with it are either euthanized or quarantined for life, though the latter option is rare and generally considered impractical. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency also conducts investigations of all cases and traceout can result in more horses being diagnosed with the illness.

Despite killing infected horses over many years, cases of EIA continue to occur so the CFIA last year proposed new ways of handling it.

Though the agency had intended to implement its new plan in 2018, it now foresees implementation in 2020, according to an agency response to Western Producer queries.

Dr. Wayne Burwash, veterinarian and president of the Canadian Quarter Horse Association, said there were objections to some parts of the CFIA’s proposal but it is nevertheless proceeding.

“I think it’s obvious that the old program was not effective. It wasn’t reducing the incidence of (EIA) and it was obvious that there was no way of eradicating the disease, which of course would be ideal.”

Burwash views CFIA’s proposed new program to be aimed at risk management rather than eradication. By implementing control zones and requiring that horses be tested before they attend shows involving 200 horses or more, it expects to reduce risk of spread.

EIA is transmitted through blood and can be spread by deer and horse flies, as well as through syringes or other blood-contaminated objects. It is identified in horses through blood tests.

Those tests can be expensive and given potential spread by flies, a horse that tests negative one day could theoretically be infected the next day. Owners can thus be reluctant to test their horses, particularly when the vast majority of those testing positive show no clinical signs and are totally healthy, Burwash said.

They also know a positive test will result in loss of the horse.

“The science, I think is fair to say, is not absolutely conclusive … that every horse that is infected with the virus is a lifetime carrier of the virus,” he said.

Some horse owners believe EIA is far less of a threat than the drastic control measures seem to indicate.

Burwash tends to agree.

“I appreciate that there’s a risk. I’m not denying that. But I think the risk is extremely low in these areas. I think there’s higher risks that we should be focused on,” he added, such as the neurological form of equine herpes.

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