First Equine Hendra Case of 2013 Confirmed in Queensland Horse

Biosecurity Queensland is managing an equine hendra virus case near Mackay, Queensland, Australia, after a positive test result was received late last night (Jan. 22).

Queensland Chief Veterinary Officer Rick Symons, BVSc, MBA, PhD, said that the horse died on the property after becoming unwell early this week.

"Biosecurity Queensland is in the process of quarantining the property," he said. "There are other horses on the property and we will be working to determine what contact the infected horse had with other animals."

"Testing and monitoring will then be undertaken over the next month," he continued. "While under quarantine, restrictions will apply to moving horses and horse materials on and off the infected property."

Symons said this was the first case of hendra virus in Queensland this year.

"Even though the majority of cases tend to occur in the cooler months between July and September, we have consistently said that hendra virus infection can occur throughout the year," he explained. "It is therefore important for horse owners to take steps to protect themselves and their animals year round.

"A hendra virus vaccine for horses is also now available and it is recommended that horse owners discuss with their veterinarian whether vaccinating their horses is appropriate," Symons said.

Hendra virus 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 disease is zoonotic, meaning it can be transmitted from horses to humans, and as proved deadly for several humans exposed to sick horses in the past.

Staff from the Department of Health's Public Health Unit in Townsville will interview all people in contact with the affected horse, assess the situation, and determine whether any testing or treatment is required. These staff will undertake contact tracing work to ensure all people potentially exposed to the sick horse have been identified.

The Australian Veterinary Association suggested that horse owners can reduce the risks of hendra virus in their horses by fencing off trees attractive to flying foxes (a type of fruit bat thought to spread hendra to horses), covering horse feed and water containers, and not feeding horses food that could appeal to flying foxes, such as fruit and vegetables.

Biosecurity Queensland also offered some tips to help reduce the risk of horses contracting hendra virus:

  • A hendra virus vaccine is available for horses. It is recommended horse owners discuss with their veterinarian whether vaccinating their horses is appropriate.
  • Horse feed and water containers should be removed from under trees. If possible, place feed and water containers under a shelter.
  • Owners should inspect and identify flowering/fruiting trees on their property. Horses should be removed from paddocks where flowering/fruiting trees are attracting flying foxes. Horses should be returned only after the trees have stopped flowering/fruiting and the flying foxes have gone. If horses cannot be removed from the paddock, consider fencing (temporary or permanent) to restrict access to flowering/ fruiting trees. Clean up any fruit debris underneath the trees before returning horses.
  • If it is not possible to remove horses from paddocks, try to temporarily remove your horses during times of peak flying fox activity (usually at dusk and during the night).
  • Ensure that sick horses are isolated from other horses, people, and animals until a veterinarian´s opinion is obtained.
  • If there is more than one horse on your property, handle unaffected horses first and then only handle sick horses after taking appropriate precautions.
  • Make sure gear exposed to any body fluids from horses is cleaned and disinfected before it is used on another horse. This includes halters, lead ropes, and twitches. Talk to your veterinarian about which cleaning agents and disinfectants to use.
  • When cleaning contaminated equipment from a sick horse, wear gloves, cover any cuts or grazes, and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
  • It is essential that horse owners practice good biosecurity and not travel with or work on sick horses, or take them to other properties or equestrian events.
  • Seek veterinary advice before bringing any sick horse onto your property.
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