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Govt fears infectious horse disease at Tokyo Games

The Yomiuri ShimbunThe agriculture ministry is concerned about infected horses being brought into Japan to participate in equestrian events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

The ministry has no choice but to permit the entry of horses, even though some may be infected with equine babesiosis (see below), an endemic disease found in horses mainly in Europe and other Asian countries.

To prevent the spread of the disease to horses in Japan, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry is researching the habitats of the ticks that cause the infection.

Baji Koen, a facility for various horse events in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, is scheduled to become a venue for equestrian events in the Olympics.

On Oct. 3 and 4, staff members of the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization, a national research and development corporation, walked around the facility brushing the grass with what appeared to be flags with white cloth attached to them and collecting fallen leaves and soil in an effort to collect ticks for the research.

According to the ministry, the entry of horses into Japan is permitted if they are accompanied by certificates ascertaining that they have been quarantined before leaving for Japan, based on animal hygiene requirement agreements with the country they originated from. Even in these cases, however, a horse is quarantined for 10 days at a facility in Japan to carry out blood and other tests. Even a racehorse, which undergoes stricter hygiene control than other horses, is required to be kept at such a facility for five days.

If an infectious disease or some other exceptional circumstance is detected during this period, the horse is culled or sent back to the original country. Twenty out of 148 horses imported from France proved positive in the tests in February, and all 20 were culled.

Special conditions

However, in past Olympics, including those held in Atlanta in 1996 and in Rio de Janeiro in August this year, even horses that tested positive for equine babesiosis were allowed to enter the host country based on a regulation of the World Organisation for Animal Health, which allows temporary entry of horses if they are under proper supervision. An official in charge at the ministry said, “We cannot request an exception only for the Tokyo Olympics.”

At the Tokyo Olympics, about 250 horses are expected to enter Japan, so it is not realistic to reach an agreement regarding animal hygiene requirements with each participating country because of the tremendous amount of time and effort that would involve.

The ministry plans to apply special conditions limited to horses that come to Japan for the Olympics. With the aim of drawing up draft plans by the end of the year, the ministry plans to coordinate with the International Olympic Committee and the International Equestrian Federation, according to sources.

No effective remedy

However, it is difficult to eradicate an infection once it spreads as there is no effective vaccine or remedy. In the United States, the disease was confirmed in 1997, the year after the Atlanta Olympics was held, and the infection still has not been eradicated.

If the disease occurs in Japan, it will affect the export of horses, because horse exports by farms or prefectures where infection is confirmed will be prohibited, the sources said.

For that reason, measures to prevent the infection from spreading to other horses will be taken at Baji Koen, such as by building a stable exclusive for horses that test positive for the disease. Other preventive measures include separating the stable from the stables of healthy horses, setting different times for positive and negative horses to practice and thoroughly sterilizing the horses and training ground after use.

The ministry plans to eradicate ticks that spread the disease where the horses will compete and the surrounding areas. It plans to research the habitat of ticks in spring, summer and autumn for three years starting from this fiscal year. In the first fiscal year, it will check on tick varieties and breeding. From next fiscal year, the ministry plans to spray pesticides and take other measures.

An official at the ministry’s Animal Health Division said: “In Europe and other places, the disease is regarded as endemic. It’s highly likely that horses that test positive will enter Japan. We’ll do everything we can to prevent the spread of disease from occurring in Japan.”

■ Equine babesiosis

The disease causes such symptoms as anemia, jaundice and fever, as the ticks ingest parasites in the red blood cells of horses. Although the death rate is about 10 percent, the disease adversely affects horse production as it hinders the development of horses. No occurrence has been reported in Japan, but infection has been confirmed in many European and Asian countries. In Japan, it is designated as a legal infectious disease under the Domestic Animal Infectious Diseases Control Law.Speech

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