How Humans Handle the Hendra Virus Risk

A three-year study investigating the impact of human behavior on the spread of the hendra virus was discussed at the Australian Veterinary Association’s conference May 29.

Dr. Kate Sawford said that the goal of the so-called "HHALTER project" is to look at how humans respond to the threat of hendra virus, and what can be done to reduce the chance of transmission from flying foxes to horses and then to humans.

“A large number of horse owners are being asked to complete five surveys conducted at six-month intervals," she said. "The surveys investigate the factors influencing people’s awareness about the risks from hendra virus and their use of prevention strategies.

“Although government agencies have been communicating about hendra virus for a number of years, more needs to be done, she continued. “The combination of a high human death rate, no cure, and no human vaccine means that hendra virus is a frightening disease. An outbreak of hendra virus on a property cannot only impact people’s health, but also be financially, professionally, emotionally, and psychologically damaging.

“Research has shown that when there’s a severe threat, there will be greater awareness and prevention measures taken by some people," Sawford relayed. “But a high level of risk may equally result in denial, fatalism, and avoidance behaviors in others, especially if the threat and related fear is accompanied by a feeling of helplessness or lack of control.”

The first stage of the research project involved collaborating with a range of individuals and organizations that have a stake in the hendra virus challenge to refine the aims of the research study.

The first survey with horse owners and horse care providers has now been completed. This survey addressed a number of topics including:

  • Awareness of the hendra virus risk;
  • Perception of the hendra virus risk in relation to other diseases;
  • Attitudes toward hendra virus vaccination, and intentions to vaccinate for hendra virus;
  • Strategies to reduce hendra virus transmission;
  • Barriers to reporting of suspect cases; and
  • Knowledge of hendra virus, including clinical signs and environmental conditions that could impact disease transmission.

Another four surveys with horse owners and horse care providers will be conducted over the next two years. The results will be used to inform hendra virus communication strategies to reduce the risk of disease transmission between flying foxes and horses, and horses and humans.

To participate in the research project or find out more information please visit or email

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