Australian Horse Owners: Prepare for 2012 Hendra Season

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) is warning horse owners to take precautions against hendra virus as the season for the infection approaches.

Barry Smyth, BVSc, FACVSc, Dipl. ACVS, AVA president, said that with hendra cases on the rise, particularly in the eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland, anyone working with horses should take caution around any sick horse.

"Our knowledge of how the hendra virus is spread is still limited, and it is difficult to predict what effect the recent wet weather will have," Smyth said. "We do know that the hendra virus is present in all flying fox populations and that the virus can shed at particular times with the fluid secretion of the flying fox including from saliva and urine."

"Horse owners should take caution around places flying foxes congregate and move horses and their food and water away from contaminated areas, particularly under trees, where high concentrations of virus material are deposited from bats; these are high risk areas for horses," Smyth continued. "People should also take precautions around horses with suspected signs of Hendra virus."

Common signs to look out for with Hendra infections in horses include respiratory distress, neurologic deficiencies, elevated body temperature (above 40°C, or 104°F), elevated heart rate, and depression. Veterinarians stress that although these signs are commonly associated with hendra cases, there are no specific signs of hendra infection.

The small number of human hendra virus infection has been the result of very close contact with horses infected with the virus. The AVA cautions people to be alert around all sick horses.

"The risk can be greatly reduced by adopting good hygiene practices as a matter of routine and taking increased precautions around any sick horse," Smyth said. "It's also important to wash your hands and equipment with soap and water regularly before, during, and after handling all horses and minimize contact with your horse if it in unwell."

Since 1994, hendra virus has been confirmed in 68 horses and seven humans. In these cases all horses either died or were euthanized and four of the people died.

The AVA awaits the completion of the hendra vaccine for horses and believes that all horses should be vaccinated against the disease when the vaccine becomes commercially available.

In the meantime, horse owners are encouraged to contact their veterinarian immediately if health problems are observed in horses or suspect the animals could be infected with hendra virus.

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