DUBAI // A rare and dangerous lung disease in horses and camels is the subject of an international conference that opened yesterday.
The event has gathered participants from countries where the disease is found, including Gulf states, as well as experts from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
Organisers of the conference, which ends tomorrow, hope to increase international cooperation in helping to eradicate the disease, known as glanders.
Thanks to strict measures such as quarantine and blood tests for horses entering the country, the UAE is free of the disease. But after recent cases were recorded in Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran and Lebanon, the Emirates cannot be too relaxed about the matter, experts said.
"The UAE is a hub for the transport of horses and we have a worldwide good reputation in horse sports," said Dr Mariam Al Shanasi, the undersecretary at the Ministry of Environment and Water.
"Up to this moment, we are free of glanders. We want to ensure that the UAE, the region and the whole world is free of the disease," she said.
Caused by a bacterium called Burkholderia mallei, glanders causes fever, depression and refusal to feed. After 10 to 14 days, ill animals start suffering from severe nasal discharge as the bacterium attacks the respiratory tract. There is no cure or vaccine for the disease, which can also affect other animals and even humans.
The disease has been eradicated in Europe but still persists in many countries, said Dr Karim Ben Jebara, head of the animal health information department at the OIE.
Recent cases have been recorded in Russia, the Philippines, Mongolia, Myanmar, Mauritania, Brazil and Ethiopia.
Kuwait reported 22 cases in 2009 and 11 the year after. Iran was also battling the disease at the same time with 53 cases reported in 2010. Bahrain had 58 cases in 2010 and 15 cases last year. Also in 2011, the disease was recorded for the first time in Lebanon.
Dr Ben Jebara recommended that countries in the region carry out "exhaustive, active survey programmes" to prevent outbreaks. He also urged countries to be more transparent.
Glanders is a notifiable disease, meaning anyone who suspects a case should report it to authorities. Governments are also strongly urged to report cases to the OIE and other international bodies.
In many cases, private veterinarians are treating the disease, and they may chose not to report it to protect their clients, said Dr Ben Jebara. "It is superficial protection," he said.
Dr Ulrich Wernery, scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL) in Dubai, also called for more transparency, urging countries to act swiftly. "It is important to be transparent," he said. "It is a big disadvantage to hide the disease as it comes out anyway."
CVRL is one of two reference labs on the disease in the world. It reports internationally on any cases it detects. Recent findings suggested that governments in the region should be very concerned. When investigating the outbreak in Bahrain last year, the lab confirmed for the first time that it can pass from horses to camels.
The biosafety requirements for importing and exporting the region's heritage animals are more relaxed compared to those in horses. But this may have to change now that camels have been proven as potential carriers of the disease.
"This is new for everybody," Dr Wernery said. "We are aware of it now and we will have to think how to tackle it."