Hendra vaccine in spotlight as unvaccinated event looms

A team of endurance horses return from their daily exercise.

Equestrian events in Australia exclusively for horses unvaccinated against the dangerous Hendra virus are disturbing the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA).

The AVA has expressed its concern about the health and welfare of horses who have not been vaccinated against Hendra at events, including endurance races. It follows comments by Equestrian Queensland board member Peter Toft, who said the pressure on members to boycott events where vaccination was not mandatory was counterproductive.

Toft told the Gympie Times: “The reality is that this is a new vaccine and its long-term impacts are largely unknown at present, so it’s understandable that some horse owners – particularly those living in areas of the state that are free from bat colonies – are hesitant to vaccinate their animals.”

Organisers of the Easter Endurance Carnival in Gympie, Queensland, stipulate that all horses entering the competition grounds must have a current Hendra vaccination certificate.

The Queensland Endurance Riders Association has approved another event the same weekend, for unvaccinated horses. The Lockyer Valley Endurance Riders will be Australia’s first non-vaccinated only endurance ride.

AVA spokesperson Dr Ben Poole said the Hendra vaccine was the most effective way to prevent the spread of the disease and it had undergone a rigorous approval process to ensure its efficacy and safety. He said a parliamentary inquiry into the vaccine was conducted last year and found it did not have any significant adverse health effects for horses.

“Obviously for these types of taxing, long-distance events it’s common for horses to need veterinary care, and in some instances, urgently. This is currently not possible, however, due to protocols around the treatment of unvaccinated horses.”

Biosecurity Queensland dictates that any unvaccinated horse showing suspected signs of Hendra virus must be quarantined and return a negative result for Hendra before they can receive treatment.

“There’s still so much we don’t know about the Hendra virus – even the early signs of this disease can be extremely vague,” Poole said.

“The fact is that endurance events bring together a large number of horses from a wide range of geographical locations, and this instantly raises the risk of Hendra virus infection if horses have not been vaccinated.

“Members decide for themselves which events they do or don’t attend. However, based on current workplace health and safety guidelines, our advice to members is that they apply best practice to protect horses and people against Hendra virus infection.

“Vaccination is the only way to ensure high standards of horse health and welfare while also adequately protecting veterinarians, horse handlers and owners from contracting this deadly virus,” Poole said.

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