Three months after Australia’s first-ever outbreak of equine influenza, an independent inquiry into the history and management of the outbreak is uncovering troubling flaws in the government’s quarantine procedures, according to recently published inquiry transcripts.
Ignored warnings, procrastinated meetings, absent work instructions, and a lack of managerial responsibility were only some of the problems leading up to the epidemic, as is being revealed through the ongoing inquiry, which opened Nov. 13.
Led by retired High Court Justice Ian Callinan, the inquiry staff have conducted interviews with 250 people and collected more than 30,000 documents in preparation for the hearings. Since last Tuesday, Callinan has interrogated leaders from the government-run Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) and the Eastern Creek quarantine center. The index case, a stallion imported from Ireland, tested positive at Eastern Creek 10 days after his arrival in Australia.
The virus infected 40,000 horses in the first nine weeks of the outbreak.
AQIS executive manager Jennifer Gordon conceded when testifying that she ignored warnings from senior New South Wales veterinarian Phillip Widders, BSc, BVSc, PhD. In 2003 Widders told her about the quarantine procedures he considered vital to reducing the risks of a flu outbreak, including requiring all personnel to shower and change clothes following contact with imported horses. Although much talk was made of setting up a meeting with Widders, no meeting ever occurred, according to the recorded testimony.
AQIS national manager David Ironside, in charge of live animal imports and post-arrival quarantines, admitted not following up on requests for work instructions from the Eastern Creek station manager. Although he sent a copy by e-mail, Ironside explained