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All imports of horses from Australia have been halted by New Zealand following the outbreak of equine influenza (EI), MAF Biosecurity said today.

New Zealand authorities are also identifying all horses that arrived in the country since the beginning of August and tracing their movements in a bid to ensure the disease is not in this country.

In Australia, Federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran today ordered a 72-hour Australia-wide ban on all thoroughbred and harness racing following the outbreak in Sydney.

MAF Biosecurity assistant director-general Barry O'Neil said New Zealand had moved quickly and adopted a cautionary approach to what was an evolving situation.

"New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world that is free from equine influenza," he said in a statement.

"MAF Biosecurity New Zealand has moved swiftly to put measures in place to protect our equine industry from this disease.

"We are working closely with the Australian authorities, the New Zealand equine industry and our veterinary association, and will review our position over the next two or three days, as more information comes to light."

Dr O'Neil said all horses that have arrived in New Zealand since the beginning of August would be identified and their movements traced.

"MAF Biosecurity NZ has a comprehensive response plan in place, should the disease ever be found here."

Dr O'Neil said EI was a highly contagious viral respiratory disease that spreads rapidly, causing significant illness in horses. "It is similar to other viral conditions which cause coughing and some discharge from a horse's nose. However, the influenza is more severe - horses develop a temperature and a dry, hacking cough."

Horses with EI became tired and do not eat, often for days, Dr O'Neil said.

"The disease is spread by close contact between horses. Infected horses and contaminated equipment or people may spread the infection from farm to farm. The disease lasts several days with full recovery taking two to three weeks, although some horses may develop complications."

MAF Biosecurity advised horse owners to be vigilant for signs of the disease.

Anyone who suspects their horse may be showing symptoms should contact their vet immediately or phone the MAF Biosecurity New Zealand emergency hotline 0800 80 90 66.

Dr O'Neil said EI was not a human health concern.

The outbreak will have huge ramifications for the racing industry in New Zealand as well as Australia.

Six international "shuttle sires" bound for New Zealand are now stranded in quarantine in New South Wales and Australia.

They include Stravinsky, Iffraaj, Ekraar, Zenno Rob Roy and Jungle Pocket.

With the breeding season due to start in a few weeks, a number of broodmare owners will be thwarted in their plans to send their mares to Australia to be served by stallions there.

The spring racing plans of many trainers in both Australia and New Zealand will be severely disrupted also.

The New Zealand TAB today suspended its early betting markets for Australian features such as the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups and Cox Plate, as well as New Zealand's showpiece, the Kelt Capital Stakes, because of the uncertainty caused by the flu outbreak.

The TAB has changed its times for the Invercargill harness meeting and Auckland greyhounds tomorrow to suit the Australian market, which has no racing of its own to bet on tomorrow.