Copşa Mare is becoming a popular stopover for equestrian tourists. Please help us eradicate Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) in rural Transylvania for good by demanding higher standards from your tour operator.
The great freedom riders enjoy in this remarkable, unfenced landscape carries with it responsibilities. Of these, the greatest, surely, is the responsibility to minimise the risk of spreading Equine Infectious Anaemia Virus (EIA).
Here we set out the facts about EIA in Romania, and propose some simple precautions that equestrian tour operators can take to minimise the risks their mounts are exposed to. If you as customers - whether individuals or travel agents based outside Romania - demand higher standards, local providers of hireling horses will deliver them - or risk losing their customers to other, more responsible players.
In 2010, the Romanian government introduced a surveillance program based on European legislation laying down a specific regime for Romania in response to weak enforcement of existing regulations and the worse outbreak of EIA ever recorded in Europe. In the years 2010–2017, there were over 10,000 positive cases of EIA, commonly known as swamp fever, in Romania. By 2017, thanks to the program, which is based upon a mandatory minimum annual blood test for all horses, the number of positives had dropped to 200. The latest available figures broken down by county for 2020 are pictured below. Personal requests for more detailed information about the exact location of outbreaks can be made here.
Despite remarkable progress in fighting the disease since mandatory blood testing was introduced, Romania today is still designated as a country with endemic EIA. The biggest obstacle to eradication is non-compliance with the surveillance scheme. The great majority of horses in this country are working animals living in the backyards of private houses in villages. Frequently traded at horse fairs, these horses may have moved great distances in their lives. Keeping tabs on them is a challenge, especially when owners are poor and compensation for the horse with the virus - all positives are destroyed - is inadequate, as the Equine Veterinary Journal explained in 2016.
“Despite testing being mandatory each year, it has not been possible to reach all privately held equids. Control of EIA virus in Romania has reached a point where eradication is feasible but may require higher compensation or other incentives to encourage full compliance and more complete voluntary testing (most horses in Romania are used for agricultural purposes), given that all positives will be destroyed.”
According to official figures from the Romanian state veterinary authorities published in June 2019, some 10 per cent of horses are not tested. In other words, it is known that an unknown number of horses remain invisible to the state veterinary authorities. Unregistered horses are thought to be most common in the poorer and more picturesque rural settlements — so often the places equestrian tour operators in this part of southern Transylvania like to take you. A typical five day trek in southern Transylvania might take 10 horses through as many as 10 villages, with overnight stays along the way. Unlike sport horses, these trekking horses are moving cross country by hoof, not horsebox, which increases the risk of infection.
As the Equine Veterinary Journal stresses, "Control of EIA in Romania has reached a point where eradication is feasible" but only with "full compliance and more complete voluntary testing". That was true in 2016 and it remains true today.
Under such conditions, it would be wise to apply the Precautionary Principle - until proven safe, assume it is not and act appropriately. Wishful thinking will not eradicate this disease. Nor will ignorance.
My wife and I have a personal interest in equine health and safety, with family horses of our own in Copşa Mare. One of the reasons for writing this blog is a troubling encounter I had recently with a local provider of hireling horses who is bringing up to 10 horses each week into the village throughout the horsefly season. The operator, Mihai Barbu, who has been written about with great enthusiasm in the western media, and has even been described as 'a competitive show jumper at the highest level' - in actual fact, he was a groom and a driver for international show jumping competitors - dismissed my concerns out of hand, insisting that Sibiu County (where we live and he operates) and neighbouring counties had long since eradicated the disease.
Barbu told us to "Cut the crap!":
"Just for your peace of mind" he said, "I inform you that in the last 3 years Sibiu and neighbouring counties have been free of EIA."
And for good measure, he added: "I am fully aware of everything related to horses that is happening, not only in this county but also in this country."
The European legislation does permit Romania to declare a part of the country 'free of EIA', notwithstanding the 'known unknown' risks of unregistered, untested horses. In November 2019, for the first time since the surveillance scheme was put in place, the European Commission declared that 16 out of 41 counties in Romania still had endemic EIA, with the remaining counties 'free of the disease for more than 12 months'. The 16 counties still suffering from the virus included Sibiu and all the counties around it. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, there were 15 outbreaks in Sibiu county alone, and well over 100 more in contiguous counties. In 2020, there were 2 cases in Sibiu county, and a further 8 cases in contiguous counties.
Evidently, Mihai Barbu is wrong. This information is freely available to him, indeed to anyone with an interest, professional or otherwise, in learning more about the incidence and control of this deadly disease.
We asked the state veterinary authorities to provide us with details of where there had been EIA outbreaks in Sibiu County in 2019. We received a reply on 25th July 2019. There were 3, in the localities of Jina, Laslea and Moșna. Laslea and Moșna are marked in red on the map above. Moșna is one of the villages visited by Mihai Barbu's hireling horses. These same routes are used by horse and carts, of course. In other words, the known risks are real. As for the known unknown risks, these are as real as you choose to make them. **
Here are a few suggestions of ways you, as equestrian tourists, can act responsibly to help Romania eradicate this insidious and deadly disease. Be aware of the fact that the specialised equestrian holiday travel agent through which you might have booked your holiday is likely an agent, not a supplier, and as such accepts no responsibility for the acts or omissions of the hireling yard that provides your mount.
1. Frequent blood tests - Check to see if the local supplier of your hireling horse is listed as an approved EIA-free holding yard in conformity with Commission Decision 2010/346/EU provisions on protective measures with regard to EIA in Romania. If yes, then your horse will have been tested every quarter for EIA. The holding yards as of February 2020 are listed here. If no, ask your hireling supplier if his horses are 'sport horses', by which is meant under Romanian law horses registered at an equestrian sport club affiliated with the Romanian Equestrian Federation. If yes, then the horses are required to have bi-annual blood tests. If no, you may ask if they would be willing, voluntarily, to test their horses for the virus more than the legally required annual test in April each year for all 'working horses'. These tests are not expensive and the more frequent the test, the more effective the surveillance.
Ten equestrian tourism businesses, at least four of which are based in Sibiu County, have formed a private association of equestrian tourism called FRTE - Federatia Romana de Turism Ecvestru. On 10th March 2020, the FRTE informed me that it is "taking into consideration an internal decision regarding a series of mandatory health regulations for our members", and said they are awaiting the EIA results for 2020 before taking a final decision.
It would be reassuring to know that trekking horses, which are treated as 'working horses' under existing regulations, passing back and forth through this part of Transylvania with such regularity, by hoof not horsebox, had received at least a bi-annual blood test. Let us hope that FRTE will lead by example, and make at least two blood tests a year for trekking horses a condition of membership.
[In August 2021, FRTE published a set of guidelines for its members on a range of issues, including the health of horses. It mentions EIA just once, urging members to obey the law and register their horses for the mandatory annual test for infectious anemia. This is disappointing given the greater risk of catching and spreading EIA to which trekking horses are exposed as they move around Romania.]
2. Repellents, sheets & masks - EIA is spread by bloodsucking female horseflies who like a blood meal before mating. The simplest way to protect a horse is with effective horsefly repellents, fly sheets & masks. These are not used on working horses in the poorer settlements in Transylvania, but they should be essential equipment for hirelings moving from village to village. The horse might not look so lovely but it will be happier and above all, safer.
3. Avoid communal water troughs - In the poorer settlements, some working horses depend upon the communal water troughs. Visiting horses should avoid places where local working horses gather, such as the communal troughs. In the horsefly season, these public troughs are exactly where the female horsefly comes to feed. This has nothing to do with the quality of the water. The virus is carried in blood and semen, not water.
4. Sun shelter - Check that your hireling horse, if turned out during the day, has access to good shelter from the sun. This greatly reduces horsefly bites, as well as slowing down the loss of essential minerals through heavy sweating. Salt licks, especially for working horses in hot weather, are necessary.
5. Livery away from local horses - Visiting hirelings should be stabled or put in paddocks that reduce the chance of them coming into contact with local horses.
6. Advance warning of visit - Ask your operator to alert horse owners in villages through which they intend to pass in advance of your visit. There are a growing number of privately owned sport horses in rural settlements in Transylvania. Early warning would give us the chance to ensure that our horses, which do not trek between villages, have no contact with visiting horses.
7. Be informed of EIA positives - Ask your operator if they are informed of the latest EIA test results in the places through which they ride and to skirt around those with recent positive cases.
8. Avoid villages in which regular open air horse markets are held - These markets attract hundreds of working horses, as this YouTube video shows.
If you demand higher standards, the ground operators will be much more likely to deliver them - or run the risk of losing you to a more responsible operator.
PLEASE HELP US ERADICATE THIS DEADLY DISEASE IN RURAL TRANSYLVANIA!
** Addendum September 2021: In February 2020, some nine months after I posted this blog, I received an email from Mihai Barbu in which he makes the startling claim that Copşa Mare, far from being free of EIA, as he insisted at first, is a "hotbed of infection", and this due to the fact that an infected horse kept hidden from the authorities has been living in the village for 10 years.
We must hope that the rather muddled Mr. Barbu did the responsible thing, and shared his knowledge with the relevant authorities. Certainly, he continued to act as if the "hotbed of infection" he claims to have existed in the village for so long, had been eradicated. In the past 18 months, he has ridden into Copşa Mare on numerous occasions, leaving his horses in a paddock in the middle of the village, sometimes for 3 or 4 hours while his guests have lunch, and sometimes for the night.