Australian Horse Owners Warned to Prepare for Hendra Season

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

"There are still lots of gaps in our knowledge about how Hendra virus spreads, and we don't know what effect the recent record wet weather will have," said Barry Smyth, BVSc, FACVSc, Dipl. ACVS, president of the AVA. "Anyone working with horses should be on the lookout and immediately report any suspected cases of Hendra virus infection over the coming months."

Common clinical signs to look out for include respiratory distress, frothy nasal discharge, elevated body temperature (above 40°C, or 104°F), and elevated heart rate. However, it is important to realize there are no specific signs of infection.

"So far cases of Hendra infection have been restricted to Queensland and New South Wales, but there is potential for the disease wherever there are flying foxes (a type of bat that is known to carry and transmit the virus)," said Smyth.

"Protective measures include placing feed and water under cover where possible, not placing feed and water under trees when flying foxes are in the area, not using feed that might attract flying foxes (such as fruit and vegetables), and where possible removing horses from fields where flying foxes are active, and fencing off trees where flying foxes roost," said Smyth.

The few cases of human Hendra virus infection have been the result of very close contact with horses infected with the virus. Body fluids or secretions from infected animals are likely to contain the virus.

"The risk can be greatly reduced by adopting good hygiene practices as a matter of routine and taking increased precautions around any sick horse," said Smyth.

"It is also important to wash your hands with soap and water regularly before, during, and after handling horses and minimize contact with your horse if it is unwell," he said.

Since 1994, Hendra virus has been confirmed in 40 horses and seven humans. In these cases all horses either died or were humanely euthanized and four of the people died.

The AVA advises owners to contact their veterinarian immediately if health problems are noticed in their horses or they suspect the horse might be infected with Hendra virus.

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