Hendra Virus: AVA Lauds Vigilance as Equine Death Toll Rises

Australian animal health officials have reported that six horses have died or been euthanized as a result of a hendra virus infection since June 20, according to a report released today (July 5) by the Sydney Morning Herald.

The most recent confirmed case was located south of Brisbane and the horse died on July 4. Tests confirmed the horse was infected with the hendra virus, the report noted.

The most recent death brings the total to six thus far this year (five were located in Queensland and one was located in New South Wales, the only two Australian states that have ever reported the virus). All of the properties that housed affected horses are currently under quarantine.

The report also noted that 17 people in Queensland and nine in New South Wales are also under observation for exposure to the deadly disease, which has killed several humans since its discovery in the mid-1990s.

On July 1 the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) released a statement stressing the importance of vigilance in hendra virus prevention and identification in humans.

"Horse owners and vets ... are feeling understandably nervous with the latest equine hendra case, but knowing what to look for and being careful around sick horses will help keep people safe from this virus," said AVA President Barry Smyth, BVSc, FACVSc, Dipl. ACVS.

"Hendra virus cases are fairly uncommon, and it's not terribly contagious," he continued. "People can only be infected by significant contact with a horse that has the disease; however, the consequences of infection are extremely serious.

"So you should practice good hygiene around sick horses, limit contact with their body fluids, and call a veterinarian as soon as you notice any signs of illness," he concluded.

Hendra virus (which has killed at least 40 horses since its discovery) has been known to yield numerous clinical signs in horses including respiratory distress, frothy nasal discharge, elevated body temperature (above 40°C, or 104°F), and elevated heart rate; however, authorities caution that hendra infection does not have specific signs.

Researchers believe that flying foxes (a breed of bat native to Queensland and New South Wales) are responsible for spreading the disease to horses; however, the exact mode of transmission remains unclear. The AVA suggested that horse owners can reduce the risks of Hendra virus in their horses by fencing off trees attractive to flying foxes, covering horse feed and water containers, and not feeding horses with food that could appeal to flying foxes, such as fruit and vegetables.

Earlier this year Australian researchers announced that a hendra virus vaccine is nearing completion, and it could be available to consumers within a few years if final testing is successful.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in three-day eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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