Hendra Virus Continues Taking Toll on Australian Horses

Australian animal health officials confirmed Thursday (July 7) that seven horses have now died or been euthanized as a result of contracting hendra virus, according to a report from World News Australia. The most recent confirmed case was located in New South Wales--the second case in that state this year and the furthest south the virus has ever been found.

The report indicates that the horse died Sunday (July 3) and laboratory tests confirming the presence of hendra virus in her body were returned yesterday. The farm the horse resided at has been quarantined, and three additional horses living on the property are under observation but aren't currently displaying any signs of illness.

The report also noted that:

  • The seven hendra-affected horses were located in Queensland (five cases) and New South Wales (two cases) exclusively; and
  • Six people in close contact with the latest fatality bring the total number of exposed humans to 15 in New South Wales and 17 in Queensland. These individuals will undergo "three rounds of tests over several weeks" before they are cleared of being infected with the virus.

The zoonotic virus can be deadly to humans if contracted and has been blamed for four human deaths since its discovery in the mid-1990s.

Not only is the virus a burden to horse owners and those involved in the equine industry, veterinarians are also facing a significant financial burden due to the extraordinary biosecurity measures that must be taken when dealing with a hendra-positive horse. A media release from the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) issued today (July 8), says that state and national governments need to step in to help support vets attending suspected hendra virus cases.

"We call for all Australian governments to implement a scheme to reimburse veterinarians for the biosecurity costs of investigating suspected hendra cases," said AVA president, Barry Smyth, BVSc, FACVSc, Dipl. ACVS. "Both flying foxes (a breed of bat native to Queensland and New South Wales believe to be responsible for spreading the disease to horses) and horses travel around the country, and it's possible that the disease could appear anywhere in Australia. This is a national issue.

"This is an unprecedented number of simultaneous incidents that have emerged in the space of just over a week," he continued. "More than 30 people may have been exposed to the virus and are awaiting test results. This dangerous disease is clearly on the rise, and private veterinarians are in the firing line. Two of the four people who have died from this disease were veterinarians, another was the husband of a vet helping with a horse postmortem, and a veterinary nurse has also been infected."

He added, "There are fewer government veterinarians who are paid to investigate suspected cases of diseases like hendra, so private veterinarians fill the gap."

Smyth proposed that when each horse is sampled for hendra testing, the veterinarian should be entitled to claim a $250 reimbursement to cover personal protective equipment for him/herself, the individual holding the horse, and anyone else assisting: "The scheme would support vets in their role of educating horse owners about the virus at the time that the samples are taken. These are services to the public.

"At an estimated cost of $500,000 each year for the scheme nationally, it is a small price to pay for ongoing hendra disease surveillance and maintaining public confidence," Smyth 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.

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 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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