Threat to Hendra research should concern Aussie horse owners

September 3, 2009

The possibility that research into the deadly Hendra virus could be curtailed should be of concern to all Australian horse owners, an industry body says.

The Australian Horse Industry Council has echoed the concerns voiced by the Australian Veterinary Association in the wake of the death of Dr Alister Rodgers in Brisbane from the virus.

Dr Rodgers, a Rockhampton vet, died after being exposed to the virus while treating sick horses at a stud property near Rockhampton, in Queensland.

Despite experimental treatment with a hepatitis drug that doctors hoped would prevent the infection developing, the veterinarian fell ill and died after two weeks in a coma.

The horse council said it is no surprise that the Australian Veterinary Association has been concerned about the lack of research into Hendra virus for some time.

In recent years most HeV research has been funded through the Australian Biosecurity Co-operative Research Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, the council said. It has not been funded beyond the middle of 2010, so any research funds they have will rapidly disappear.

"This means that unless a source of funding is soon found, any future research into HeV is problematic and in jeopardy.

"The possibility that future research about HeV might be significantly curtailed must be of very serious concern to all horse owners in Australia.

"There are still considerable gaps in knowledge about HeV and how it circulates in flying foxes, how they cope with the infection, how HeV passes from flying foxes to horses, and how HeV then passes to humans.

"There is no rapid diagnostic test for HeV, there remains a considerable lack of understanding of how to recognise a horse affected by the virus in the initial stages of infection, the proper biosecurity precautions to take early to prevent infection remain ill defined, there is no specific treatment for people who become infected with HeV, there is no vaccine for people or horses, and there remains considerable lack of knowledge and apathy among horse owners about basic biosecurity practices for their horses and properties (despite the lessons that should have been learned from the equine influenza outbreak and increasing frequency of the potentially deadly HeV infection).

"Matters surrounding HeV alone provide considerable weight to the need for horse owners to be making ongoing contributions to horse research in Australia. HeV infections, though rare, have devastating effects on people who do contract the infection and those around them - family, friends and work colleagues.

"The lives and health of people who work with horses might depend on gaining as much information about HeV as possible, in as short a time as possible."

The council expressed its deep regret over the death of Dr Rodgers and extended its deepest sympathies to his wife and family.

Since HeV was first detected in 1994, there have been seven human infections. Four of these people have died - horse trainer Vic Rail, cane farmer Mark Preston (who became infected when assisting his veterinarian wife to do a post mortem on a horse), and veterinarians Ben Cuneen and Alister Rodgers, who both became infected when treating horses before they realised the horses might have HeV infection.

The death rate from HeV infections in humans is now 57%.

The three people who have become infected with HeV and have survived include a stable hand from the original outbreak in Hendra in 1994, a Cairns veterinarian, and a veterinary technician from the Redlands outbreak of HeV in 2008.