Hendra report calls for health and safety push

October 9, 2009

An independent report into the handling of an outbreak of the deadly Hendra virus in August says more needs to be done to improve workplace health and safety during outbreaks.

Biosecurity Queensland engaged Dr Nigel Perkins to conduct an independent audit of procedures used at Cawarral during the outbreak, which resulted in the death of Rockhampton vet Dr Alister Rogers.

Perkins, a veterinary epidemiologist, also led the independent review into Hendra cases at Redlands and Proserpine last year. The Redlands outbreak resulted in the death of another vet, Ben Cunneen.

Biosecurity Queensland said it would convene a meeting of relevant government agencies, the Australian Veterinary Association and horse industry groups to discuss workplace health and safety matters.

Hendra virus is carried by native fruit bats but can infect horses. The virus is then able to jump to people exposed to their bodily fluids.

Perkins' report found that Biosecurity Queensland officers responded rapidly and effectively and in accordance with state and national plans and procedures.

Queensland's Minister for Primary Industries, Tim Mulherin, said Biosecurity Queensland was on site within 90 minutes of being first notified of the suspect case at Cawarral on August 8.

"Quarantine was declared the same day to immediately minimise any risk of further exposure of horses and humans to the virus."

The report said Biosecurity Queensland staff undertook their work in a professional, timely and competent manner.

The minister said the report made three recommendations, which Biosecurity Queensland had already considered and would address.

"One relates to increasing the capacity of the Emergency Management Unit within Biosecurity Queensland and there are already plans in place to do this.

"The second recommendation relates to workplace health and safety matters during a response, many of which are not the responsibility of Biosecurity Queensland.

"However, once the current responses to Hendra virus incidents are concluded, Biosecurity Queensland will convene a meeting of relevant government agencies, the Australian Veterinary Association and horse industry groups to discuss workplace health and safety matters.

"Although the report found staff from Biosecurity Queensland and Queensland Health communicated at the local and policy level, the third recommendation is that process be formalised.

"The two agencies had already agreed to meet to debrief once the current Hendra incidents have been resolved."

The minister said the report also made the point that the tragic death of a private vet and the exposure of horse industry workers to Hendra virus was a reminder of the potential risks to anyone who worked with horses.

"People in the horse industry and veterinarians need to take appropriate precautionary measures when it comes to Hendra.

"I cannot overemphasise the importance of taking appropriate safety measures, including wearing personal protective equipment when dealing with sick horses.

"While Biosecurity Queensland will always respond in a rapid and professional manner to Hendra virus incidents, it is incumbent on horse owners, industry and vets to be aware of the risks and always implement good personal biosecurity processes."

Meanwhile, horses on the two properties remaining under quarantine at Cawarral - the original infected property and a neighbouring property - have undergone their final round of sampling.

Once results are known, authorities will consider lifting quarantine conditions.

"The quarantines will not be lifted until Biosecurity Queensland is completely confident there is no chance of any active Hendra virus infection," the department said.