Test, trace and isolate is the strategy. There’s a 14-day quarantine, frequent thermal scanning too. But this time, it’s the outbreak of Equine Herpes Virus (EHV-1) among horses in Europe that is the reason. And caught in the middle of it are Tokyo Olympics-bound Indian horseman Fouaad Mirza and his mare, Dajara 4.
“It is serious. The virus is spreading like wildfire. It is very contagious and there have been casualties, many of them at competition venues,” Mirza, who is set to become the first Indian rider to compete at the Games since Sydney 2000, told The Indian Express.
The International Equestrian Federation, which goes by the abbreviation FEI, said on its website that the virus originated in Spain’s Valencia in the third week of February. Since then, it has infected close to a hundred horses and, according to data available as of March 5, killed nine.
Seven countries have confirmed EHV-1 cases, so far: Spain, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Qatar. A case has been reported in the USA, too, but the FEI said it was not linked to the current outbreak in Europe.
Consequently, the world body said that based on the “science provided by epidemiologists”, it has cancelled events in Europe for four weeks at least “due to the rapid evolution of a very aggressive strain of the neurological form” of the virus.
Soon after Italy confirmed a case of EHV, Mirza left the country, where there was a competition, for his training base in Germany by road. With Dajara 4 in tow, he drove a trailer for almost 22 hours non-stop, covering a distance of roughly 1,800 km between Montelibretti, near Rome, to Bergedorf in northwest Germany.
“Normally, we would split the journey into two parts: cover half the distance, take rest at what is called ‘overnight stables’ and then complete the rest of the journey the next day,” said Mirza, who in 2018 became India’s first equestrian medallist in an individual event at the Asian Games since 1982.
“But since it is risky to take the horse to a stable right now, and the fact that most stables are not allowing horses from outside, we have had to complete the entire journey in one go. It’s very tough for the horse,” he said.
Virus that targets horses
The challenge didn’t end with the road trip. Upon reaching Bergedorf, Dajara 4 was taken to a separate facility where she won’t be in contact with horses from her home stable or others from the region. Disinfection procedures have been laid out at the quarantine venue, there will be onsite veterinary support and only Mirza will be allowed to look after her.
“She will be in quarantine for 14 days. Tests will be conducted on her on day 1 and 14, and temperature will be monitored twice a day. Only after the veterinarian gives an all-clear will she be able to join the other horses in the stable,” said Mirza.
Equine herpes, Mirza said, is “not uncommon” during this time of the year, since it is the breeding season for horses. But a couple of factors have made the outbreak of EHV-1 alarming this time.
One, this strain causes neurological problems, leading to paralysis and in some cases, death. Horses that contract this virus can develop a lack of coordination, weakness, loss of appetite and are unable to stand, Mirza said. “It is scary to see horses like that,” said the Arjuna Award winner.
The other reason for concern is the high transmission levels. “It appeared at two, three competitions where around 2,000 horses were stabled. These horses move all over Europe, take this virus with them everywhere and it’s a similar situation to Covid,” the 29-year-old said.
Mirza has been training in Germany for the Tokyo Olympics. After months of lockdown, competitions in Europe began recently and Mirza reached the Italian city of Montelibretti on February 23 to compete in an event on February 25.
The irony is inescapable: in March 2020, as the sporting world came to a grinding halt, it was Mirza who, like the rest, had to follow these strict protocols. A year on, as things limp back to a semblance of normalcy, Mirza’s world has come to a screeching halt once again, this time due to the equine virus.
But Mirza chose to look at the positives. “In March 2020, I wasn’t able to compete at all. This time, at least I was able to get a competition under my belt,” he said. “At the moment, my main goal is Dajara remains fit and healthy.”