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Reflections on MRLS

Posted March 7, 2002
Editor's note: Reprinted from the Equine Research and Service Report, Winter 2001, Volume 15 Number 2, with permission from the University of Kentucky Equine Research Foundation.
At the November 28, 2001, meeting of the University of Kentucky Equine Research Foundation Board of Directors, Dr. David Powell made a presentation about Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS). The board asked that we share it with you, our readers.

Good morning Madame chairman and ladies and gentlemen. This very brief presentation - I do not propose going into the background of MRLS, neither am I going to go over in detail the monitoring and recommendations program, copies of which are available. What I would like to do is make four observations in light of this outbreak on how these might impact future activities of the Gluck Equine Research Center. Those four observations are: Why Kentucky, why 2001?; the importance of diagnosis; the role of communication; scientific collaboration.

Why Kentucky, why 2001? I think there are some very interesting analogies bearing in mind the Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic in the United Kingdom, also this year. The reason that outbreak was so catastrophic was the result of economic forces which resulted in sheep being moved around to livestock centers, and sold and resold. As a result an epidemic of a highly contagious virus spread throughout the United Kingdom. Management practices influenced by economic forces were major contributing factors to a major disease outbreak. Where is the analogy with Kentucky and the equine population? When I first became involved in the horse industry in 1970, one stallion covered 40 mares in one season. As time has progressed, we are now in the situation where one stallion can cover - not just in Kentucky but in other centers of equine breeding around the world - 100 to 200 mares. That is a significant management change influenced by economic forces. I don't want to imply that this was the cause of MRLS, but I would suggest that because of economic pressures, a large number of mares were covered in February and early March. As a result, a large susceptible in-foal population was exposed to the critical insult, which occurred in mid-April. The insult that has not yet been identified was unique to 2001 and certain other years in the past. It resulted from a bizarre set of circumstances that came together, influenced primarily by weather conditions. So there I would suggest circumstances which answer "Why Kentucky, why 2001"?

Diagnosis - Whether it's in the human or veterinary field of disease outbreaks - we are all aware of the serious problems that have occurred around the world in recent years. The emphasis with respect to control is disease surveillance and early detection. Early detection is important because it prevents or limits the the extent of the outbreak, disease surveillance because it provides material on which to make a diagnosis. You can see from the proposed monitoring program for MRLS, that a plan has been put in place which should, in the unfortunate circumstances that another disease outbreak might occur, ensure that the appropriate material is collected for a rapid diagnosis. We have in place the ability to undertake disease surveillance and early detection, the Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center. Historically all materials - dead fetuses, carcasses - have been submitted to one laboratory for investigation and diagnosis. That is critical for disease surveillance and early diagnosis. In the future, bearing in mind the possibility of other disease problems emerging, whether of an infectious or non-infectious nature, there is a critical role that the Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center has to play. Others, besides myself, particularly Dean Smith, have enunciated in a public forum, a recent Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Manager' Club Meeting, the importance of enhancing and developing the facilities at the Diagnostic Laboratory. As a disease investigator, I would fully support that proposal and would emphasize that we shouldn't just be talking about it, but doing something to ensure that needed improvements take place.

Communication - In looking back over this MRLS outbreak, there is one area where we've developed a model that we can follow in the future. Our efforts to communicate with the industry and the veterinarians were helped considerably by utilizing the resources of Agricultural Communications within the College of Agriculture. Those personnel helped us cope with the avalanche of information requests from the media, not just locally but nationally and internationally. Without their help we would have been faced with a very difficult situation. With reference to communication locally, there were areas where we succeeded and others where we didn't succeed. We did succeed in developing an effective web site. A particular area of concern was our liaison with local equine practitioners. Historically, the department has had a very good relationship with local equine practitioners. During this outbreak however, that relationship was put to the test. I do feel that the Equine Research Foundation is an appropriate forum that might help to facilitate rebuilding bridges with the local equine practitioner community as the result of some of the perceived problems that occurred during this outbreak.

Scientific Collaboration - Historically, this department has built a reputation in the area of infectious equine diseases, and deservedly established an international recognition in the field. If we look at what's happening in disease outbreaks in human and veterinary medicine, not just nationally but internationally, many of the problems go beyond the boundary of infectious disease. It behooves us as scientists to incorporate expertise, both locally, nationally and internationally, on a much broader scale in our investigation of disease outbreaks, than has hitherto been the case. This issue is being addressed, and Dr. Cox, the associate dean for research, has taken on the task of identifying appropriate collaborations within the college of agriculture. It is necessary to develop a rapport between scientists not just at the veterinary level but at the general scientific level whether that be agronomy or other areas, so that we can apply ourselves diligently and more expertly to address and resolve some of these problems. If we do adopt this approach, then we will be seen by the equine industry, particularly in central Kentucky to be addressing these problems to the best of our ability.

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