Racing: Killer virus an isolated case

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SCIENTISTS in Australia believe that they have isolated a virus responsible for the death of Vic Rail, one of the country's leading trainers, and 14 racehorses, including 11 at Rail's yard. Investigators may now be able to discover how the infection originated, and whether or not it poses a threat to horses and those who work with them in Australia and beyond.

The virus has been identified as a member of the Paramyxovirus family, other members of which are responsible for canine distempter, Newcastle's disease in birds and infections of cattle. 'On current indications we could be dealing with a new virus causing a new disease syndrome,' Dr Kevin Dunn, the director of Queensland's Animal Health Bureau, said. It is still unclear whether Rail contracted the respiratory infection from his horses, or whether it was he who passed it to his string.

At present, the outbreak of the disease in Queensland, however dramatic, appears to hold few if any, implications for trainers and stable staff elsewhere. 'It is very, very unusual for a virus to be pathogenic across the species,' Sue Dyson, of the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, said yesterday. 'For instance, human flu virus doesn't infect horses, and equine flu virus doesn't affect people. They are normally very species-specific.'

Two of Rail's stablehands also fell ill with similar respiratory problems at about the same time as the trainer, but recovered, probably because their overall level of health was superior. 'It would appear that very close contact with infected saliva or blood is necessary to contract the disease,' Dr Dunn said.

Sixty horses are in quarantine and under investigation at Rail's yard, and racing in Queensland remains suspended. However, fears that the entire country's programme might be brought to a halt are receding, and the Melbourne Cup, due to be run at Flemington on the first Tuesday in November, seems safe.

'Everything seems to have settled down,' Dyson said. 'There have been no new cases as far as we're aware, and there may never be any more cases. As far as stable staff are concerned, unless they are in Australia and directly exposed to infected horses, the risk is miniscule.'

The news of Rail's death may have tempted stablehands to visit their local army-surplus shop in search of a biohazard suit, but the risk to their health from a kick or a fall while riding work is many times greater than any posed by their charge's runny nose.