A SENIOR equestrian industry spokesperson has strongly criticised the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) claiming they are holding the industry to ransom and responding prematurely to the parliamentary inquiry into the Hendra virus vaccine.
Board member and former president of Equestrian Queensland, Peter Toft said the association's ongoing pressure on its members to boycott equestrian events where vaccination was not mandatory was counterproductive and failed to address the responsibility of all involved to create a safe environment within which people can enjoy their horses.
"If vets are refusing to adjudicate endurance events unless they are vaccination only, they are effectively forcing event organisations to turn away any members who have concerns about the vaccine and the impact it has on their horses," said Mr Toft.
"The reality is that this is a new vaccine and its long-term impacts are largely unknown at present, so it's understandable that some horse owners - particularly those living in areas of the state that are free from bat colonies - are hesitant to vaccinate their animals."
"Any decision to mandate or not mandate vaccination at equestrian events is premature - everyone should take a deep breath and let the impact of the inquiry's recommendations take its course, and genuinely hope that some of those recommendations are enacted, including helping vets to be compliant with Workplace Health and Safety obligations like all other employers in Queensland."
"People have been labelled "anti-vaxxers" by veterinarians when nothing could be further from the truth. People used the vaccine in good faith and have been devastated by the adverse reactions their horses have been having. They are not "anti-vaxxers" - they used the product and found it to be flawed. If this was a set of brakes failing in a car there would never be such a reaction - the brakes would have been withdrawn from the market and fixed. Why is this not happening with this product? Is it just because it's been called a vaccine?"
"Casual infection has never occurred in people through the day-to-day handling of horses. People have only been infected when performing invasive procedures without adequate PPE and they have been exposed to copious amounts of body fluids from dead and dying Hendra-infected horses. The disease is extremely rare, is very hard to contract and there have been no further human infections or deaths since it was established in 2009 that human infection can be prevented through the use of basic PPE."
Mr Toft's comments followed confirmation that for the first time in its history, the Queensland Endurance Riders Association (QERA) had approved a second endurance event to be hosted on the Easter weekend to ensure all its members had an equal opportunity to participate in an Easter weekend event.
QERA's policy has always been to prevent any two events from being held on the same weekend so all riders have an opportunity to partake in the full endurance calendar; however, the industry body believed it had no choice but to sanction a second event given the first ride was reclassified as 'vaccination only' by the host club, leaving a number of members with no place to ride come the long weekend.
The second ride, hosted by the Lockyer Valley Endurance Riders (LoVERs) club, will be Australia's first non-vaccinated only endurance ride.
Ride organiser Lyndell Abercrombie said the event was created solely to provide an opportunity for those who support the pro-choice side of the vaccination debate to still enjoy a weekend which has traditionally united endurance riders from across the state and beyond.
"It's disappointing to see the industry divided, and this can largely be attributed to the significant pressure the AVA has put on its members to refuse attendance at events without a vaccination mandate."
"For the safety of both animals and riders, host clubs are required to have one qualified equine veterinarian for every thirty participating horses; however, finding local professionals to attend events that accept unvaccinated horses has become increasingly difficult," said Ms Abercrombie.
"It is my understanding that the original Imbil event taking place over the Easter weekend was unable to source vets in their local area that were willing to be involved, so they opted to implement a vaccination-only mandate to allow the event to proceed."
"It's not uncommon for vets to withdraw a few days prior to a pro-choice event after receiving considerable pressure from the AVA to suspend their involvement. The fact that the AVA is sponsored by Hendra vaccine manufacturer Zoetis certainly raises some questions as to why the industry body is so supportive of a vaccine that is still very much in the early stages of development with long-term effects that are unknown."
"We've had to resort to flying vets in from interstate to be able to meet the quota of professionals required for our event, and we're glad to be offering pro-choice endurance riders who are ineligible to participate in the Imbil event the opportunity to enjoy a weekend of riding and sharing great experiences with friends and family."
One endurance rider registered to attend the LoVERs event is Leigh Ann Sample from Brookleigh Stud in Kenilworth who said that while she understood the Faraway Club's decision to run a vaccinated only event, it was a shock to her family.
"I have two children that have always spent Easter riding in an endurance event - they think of a horse first not the Easter bunny," said Ms Sample.
She was disappointed that it had come to this given the great tradition that existed for Easter rides.
"I thank the members of the LoVERs club for hosting an event that enables those of us who don't support the call for vaccination to still participate in the sport this Easter."
"While I understand that vets are being put into a difficult position given the pressure from the AVA, we can't overlook that there has never been a vaccination with so many negative effects on a horse's performance, meaning more testing must be done by the manufacturer before any calls to mandate vaccination can be considered."
"It's important to note that the vaccine carries no guarantees by the manufacturer and given that no-one has ever contracted Hendra while wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), as an industry we should surely be able to create standards that ensure the safety of all involved without mandating a vaccine that has not been sufficiently tested."
"The AVA should be calling on the vaccine manufacturer Zoetis to conduct further testing to confirm the safety of the vaccine and the requirements for boosters based on its potency. One would have to question whether the AVA can truly be an independent body representing the best interests of their members - and ultimately the horse owners who are their member's clients - given Zoetis is a silver sponsor of the AVA."
"It is also important to note that this vaccination debate is in no way similar to the vaccination of humans - this vaccine cannot eradicate Hendra as the disease is carried by bats. What we are talking about is doing what is necessary to ensure we have a vaccine that is safe, and ultimately protecting vets from exposure risk through appropriate Workplace Health & Safety protocols."
Ms Abercrombie supported this saying many of those who had already registered for the LoVERs ride had good reason not to vaccinate, either due to their geographical location or due to being aware of the negative experiences encountered with the vaccine.
"When you consider that roughly three horses contract Hendra in any given year, it makes sense that people living in areas with no bat colonies a significant distance away from locations that have recorded cases of Hendra would shy away from injecting their horses with a vaccine that hasn't undergone sufficient testing," said Ms Abercrombie.
"There is certainly a demand for this second event given what has transpired recently and we look forward to a successful and positive meet over Easter. I would like to thank QERA and our sponsors for helping us make this possible and I encourage endurance riders and other riders who have considered getting involved in the sport to come along and enjoy a great experience in the Lockyer Valley."
Mr Toft believes that while this ride was necessary in this instance, it should in no way set a precedent.
"It's disappointing that the need to host a vaccinated and unvaccinated event on the same weekend is the only way we can still ensure endurance riders get to enjoy a wonderful weekend with their horses and be part of a sport that is pro-choice when it comes to vaccination," said Mr Toft.
"With inaccurate, unreliable and misleading statements from both sides of the debate - veterinarians and horse owners - it is challenging for those who want the current impasse to be resolved and for endurance events to return to being prosperous and a truly rewarding lifestyle for many, riding out in the bush for long distances like the early pioneers of Australia."
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