Horses and Human Die in Australia Hendra Outbreak; Government Comes Under Fire

There have been calls for an inquiry about the recent hendra outbreak in Australia that has resulted in the death of five horses and one human, according to an article on

Veterinarian Ben Cunneen, BVSc, who was 33 years old, died Wednesday, Aug. 20. He had contracted Hendra virus from a horse hospitalized at the Redlands Veterinary Clinic on the outskirts of the city of Brisbane in the state of Queensland.

A nurse and another veterinarian also have been hospitalized. The nurse and Cunneen were confirmed positive for the virus in mid-July. Both staff members had cared for infected horses at the clinic prior to the diagnosis of Hendra, a known fatal zoonotic virus. Four horses died in this outbreak in July and another horse recovered but was euthanized as a health threat.

According to a report in the Brisbane Times, a Department of Primary Industries veterinarian, was hospitalized after pricking herself with a needle she had used to euthanize the horse that had recovered from Hendra.

"This is one of the most deadly viruses known to man," explained Biosecurity Queensland Chief Veterinary Officer Ron Glanville, BSc, BVSc, MVS, in a ProMED-mail post (a program of the International Society for Infectious Diseases) circulated Tuesday, Aug. 21. "It has a mortality rate in horses of over 70%. Not counting the current people in hospital, 50% of previous human cases have died. It is a high-level containment category virus that is only studied in laboratories under the strictest of biocontainment protocols. Hence, it is not something to play around with."

The virus has only been reported in Australia. Fruit bats indigenous to the continent appear to be its natural host. Typical equine clinical signs of Hendra include respiratory distress, frothy nasal discharge, elevated heart rate, and increased body temperature. Some horses display neurologic signs, such as head-pressing or twitching, while others might appear to be colicky.

However, Glanville noted that the Redlands cases were unusual, in that the affected horses displayed neurologic signs as their main clinical presentation. These signs included ataxia, head tilt, and facial nerve paralysis, in addition to increased temperatures and purple mucous membranes.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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