Written by: Dr. Ashley Whitehead

Watching out for disease to improve prevention.

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While equine health professionals encourage horse owners to practice biosecurity measures to prevent and minimize the spread of infectious disease, behind the scenes, a recently formed group of proactive individuals has been working to establish a national equine disease surveillance system.

The Equine Health Surveillance Network, part of the Canadian Animal Health Surveillance System (CAHSS) is an industry-government initiative of the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council. Its purpose is to work toward more effective, responsive and integrated animal health surveillance. To date, CAHSS network groups have been established for: poultry, swine, dairy cattle, beef cattle, wildlife, aquatics, antimicrobial usage and equine. The equine network is by far the largest of all the CAHSS groups, with more than 40 members representing numerous equine sectors.

In a geographically large country such as Canada, disease levels can vary significantly, as can horse populations and the resources to control disease. Some diseases are monitored, and responses to these diseases are regulated by either the Federal Government or Provincial Government. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) collects information about some federally reportable and notifiable diseases, but not all, and while they do post updates on their website, they do not actively disseminate the information to horse owners. Similarly, provinces only post information online about certain diseases. It is the aim of the CAHSS to provide a single, constantly updated source of information on all reportable and notifiable diseases. In collaboration with all government officials, CAHSS is assisting in the communication of important equine disease updates of federally or provincially reportable and notifiable diseases through the CAHSS website and through the Equine Disease Communication Center. Anyone who signs up on the website – veterinarians, horse owners, industry professionals – will receive these notices.

The equine network kicked off with a workshop in late 2016 in Toronto. Since then, a group of 44 members from 25 different organizations and multiple industry sectors, has established several working groups as well as a core leadership group. To date, they have accomplished the following:

  • Established a database of Equine Health Surveillance Network members on the CAHSS website, including coordinates and affiliations, enabling our ability to rapidly contact and call together members when needed.
  • Initiated discussions with the CFIA and Council of Chief Veterinary Officers for Canada regarding timely sharing of information on equine notifiable diseases.
  • Developed a members’ only site on the CAHSS website for sharing of non-public information.
  • Established an alert system to inform those signed up on the website when validated information on disease occurrence is received.
  • Assembled and moved forward with three working groups tackling communication and collaboration with the U.S.-based Equine Disease Communication Centre (equinediseasecc.org), disease case definitions and a core leadership team.
  • Provided updates on the Equestrian Canada Health and Welfare National Call – a podcast format which anyone can tune in to at equestrian.ca/industry/health/disease.
  • Worked with researchers at the University of Guelph to integrate equine laboratory test data from provincial and private laboratories to describe where positive tests for specific horse diseases have occurred

Disease notification and timely communication will have a tremendous impact in helping the Canadian horse industry take an active role in monitoring outbreaks, minimizing risks and preventing the spread of infectious disease among our horses.

Reportable diseases: These are diseases of significant importance to human or animal health or to the Canadian economy such as anthrax or rabies. Animal owners, veterinarians and laboratories are required to immediately report the presence of an animal that is infected or suspected of being infected with one of these diseases to the appropriate government official.

Notifiable Diseases: These are diseases of concern that do not require government interaction, but should be monitored to establish prevalence or trends. These may be immediately notifiable diseases, which are diseases exotic to Canada for which there are no control or eradication programs, such as West Nile virus, or annually notifiable diseases, like strangles or influenza that are diseases for which Canada must submit an annual report to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) indicating their presence within Canada.

More information can be found on cahss.ca and you can also sign up for email alerts through the Equine Disease Communication Center at equinediseasecc.org.

Dr. Ashley Whitehead of the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine is a member of the Canadian Animal Health Surveillance’s core leadership group, working in collaboration with the Equine Disease Communication Center.