It lacks the catchy name of the "mad cow disease," but a malaria-like horse ailment called equine piroplasmosis is a growing concern of American thoroughbred owners worried that infected animals allowed to compete in this summer's Olympics in Atlanta could introduce the parasite here.
The disease, which is harmless to humans but debilitating and sometimes fatal for horses, is native to the tropics but has spread to many countries around the world -- although not yet the United States. Limited outbreaks here have been successfully eradicated and foreign animals carrying the parasite are barred entry.
But at the insistence of international Olympic officials and some foreign leaders, the Georgia and U.S. Agricultural departments have granted waivers allowing up to 20 infected horses into the country for the Summer Games' equestrian competition.
The animals will be limited to certain events and will be stabled in facilities designed to mitigate transmission of the disease. But critics of the policy say it could be an expensive gamble.
"This is a parasitic disease getting into a horse population with no natural resistance," said Malcolm Commer, president of the Maryland Horse Council, which met last night in Annapolis.
"I think it has the potential to be a catastrophic mistake. Whether it materializes or not depends on a lot of things."
Like other critics of the waivers, Dr. Commer is skeptical that the disease can be contained, because it is transmitted by ticks. All it would take is a few ticks biting an infected horse and the parasite could become established in the tick population and spread quickly in a highly mobile racing industry where horses frequently are shipped to meets around the country.
Infected horses require expensive antibiotic treatments and may be unable to compete for extended periods. If the disease becomes established in this country, the cost of treatment, lost income and livestock deaths could total $3 billion a year nationwide, including $300 million a year in Maryland, he estimates.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and senior member of the Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittee, fought the waivers, but now says it's too late to change the policy.
"I don't like the decision. I think it's a mistake. The administration is taking a risk here with one of America's, and particularly Kentucky's, finest industries," the senator told the Associated Press last month.
But Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, who initially opposed allowing the infected animals into the state, said he is confident that the precautions his office has put together will prevent any spread.
"We have it well in hand and feel very secure with this program," Mr. Irvin said.
Under Georgia's regulations, infected horses will be limited to show jumping and dressage competition, not the cross-country events that bring the animals into the countryside. The horses also will be quarantined in a special stable under 24-hour supervision, fed only hay from non-tick-infested northern states and bedded on pine shavings.
Mr. Irvin said the 20-point program may prove safer than barring the animals altogether and assuming the disease could not enter the country with the other horses. But he acknowledges pressure was placed on him and federal officials to allow the animals into the country. Among the infected horses are two past world champions and another owned by the daughter of the king of Spain.
"Needless to say, it was a very high-profile issue," he said.
Horses competing in the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1984 were granted limited waivers, but Southern California's weather and natural tick species were considered inhospitable to the disease. Not so in Georgia.
A fact sheet put out by the U.S. Agriculture Department acknowledges that once the disease is established in a tick population, it is "almost impossible to eradicate."
The Maryland Department of Agriculture opposed the waivers and still opposes the policy but does not want to foment panic, said Henry A. Virts, deputy secretary for the department.
"We're going to take every precaution that we can and try to diffuse any alarm," Mr. Virts said.
Requirements have been drafted for Maryland horses competing in the Olympics to undergo special medical tests and to be isolated for 30 days upon return to the state.
Ralph Knowles, a Maryland Agriculture Department field veterinarian who has studied the disease, said: "In a perfect world, you would keep these infected animals out. But the threat is infinitesimal if all the safeguards are followed."
Although the disease is curable, the cost and inconveniences can be high, he said.
"It's a disease load you really don't want to take on," he said. "Once it gets into the tick population, it's about there to stay. Ticks are tough adversaries."
Pub Date: 4/09/96