On alert for fatal Hendra virus

HIGH-LEVEL surveillance for the fatal Hendra virus is being continued by the North Coast Live-stock Health and Pest Authority (LHPA), with four suspect horses cleared of having the infection in the last month.

Hendra virus is an acute fatal respiratory disease spread from flying foxes (fruit bats) to horses and from horses to humans.

The flying fox is host to the virus, but is not affected and there is no evidence of human-to-human, human-to-horse or bat-to-human infection.

Hendra virus was first detected in Queensland in 1994 at a stable in the suburb of Hendra, Brisbane.

Since then more than 30 cases have been diagnosed, with only one of those being in Northern NSW at Murwillumbah in 2006.

Despite this, LHPA senior district veterinarian Matthew Ball said the virus could potentially infect horses wherever there were flying foxes.

“Hendra virus could occur anywhere that fruit bats are found,” Dr Ball said.

“That’s anywhere from the north-west of Australia right down the eastern seaboard.

“It’s not well understood exactly why all but one case has been in Queensland.”

Despite the mystery surrounding the spread of the virus, Dr Ball said it possibly had to do with development of rainforest areas.

“There has been a massive amount of urban development in south-east Queensland in areas that were tropical rainforest,” he said. “Those bats then have to find somewhere else to feed and they’re very smart animals and can adapt to the world they’re in.

“So there’s a situation now where horses, fruit bats and humans are living closer together.”

Dr Ball said horses should not be fed or watered under trees where fruit bats could gather.

Of the seven people known to have been infected with the virus, four have died. The mortality rate in horses is more than 70 per cent.

Symptoms in horses include an acute onset of fever, leading rapidly to death associated with respiratory or neurological failure.

Suspect the virus if a horse’s health deteriorates quickly, but signs can be more gradual.

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