Hendra dog case raises "new questions, challenges"

July 27, 2011

Australia will invest a further $A6 million into studying the Hendra virus following an increase in horse infections, and this week's announcement of a case in a dog.

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong confirmed the dog case this week, with Queensland chief veterinary officer, Dr Rick Symons, describing it as an unprecedented situation.

The deadly bat-borne virus has killed 14 horses in little more than a month in Queensland and New South Wales, in the worst string of cases since the disease was first identified in 1994.

The virus is able to make the jump into humans once it infects horses. Of the seven known cases in humans since 1994, four have proved fatal. The last two fatalities were equine veterinarians.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell today announced an extra $A6 million would be spent over the next three years to accelerate Hendra virus research.

Bligh announced the funding after meeting with internationally renowned Hendra scientists and key members of the Hendra Virus Taskforce in Brisbane today.

"The increase in Hendra incidents this year and yesterday's announcement of a positive case in a dog has raised new questions and challenges for our scientists," Bligh said.

The extra spending would ramp up vital research and help improve understanding of how to respond to the Hendra virus, she said.

The taskforce has identified three main research questions which need answering:

  • Why does the virus spill-over from flying foxes?
  • How are horses and other animals exposed to Hendra Virus?
  • Why is there such a spike in cases this year?

"Queensland and New South Wales have committed funding of $A3 million each to build on and accelerate the research already under way into how the virus transmits from flying foxes," Bligh said.

"The Queensland Government has already committed $A1.5 million over three years to the Queensland Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases for Hendra research and $A300,000 to the Australian Animal Health Laboratory to develop a horse vaccine."

She said the fresh funding quadruples research dollars to a pool of $A7.8 million from Queensland and New South Wales.

"This year we have seen an increase in the number of confirmed cases of Hendra virus infection and our analysis of local flying fox populations show a rise in the number of flying foxes carrying the virus," she said.

"This additional funding will allow us to increase our understanding of why this may be happening and also how the disease is transmitted."

The new research will include:

  • Improving understanding even further on how the disease behaves in flying fox colonies - through mapping age and immunity structures within colonies and monitoring the stress of a colony by testing steroid levels in urine.

  • How horses and flying foxes interact, through further monitoring of flying fox and other animal behaviour at night, with more infra-red cameras in more locations throughout Queensland and New South Wales.

  • How environmental factors, such as food availability, temperature and rainfall impact on the likelihood of the disease "spilling over" from flying foxes to animals.

  • A better understanding of what is driving flying fox movements, including the impact of extreme climatic events, using satellite tracking and other remote sensing techniques.

  • Further laboratory studies to investigate the susceptibility and transmission of Hendra virus in domestic species.

Bligh said in time, the research could lead to the development of a model that may help predict the risk of Hendra virus occurring and further improve the advice given to veterinarians and horse owners to prevent infection of horses and humans.

"If we can better understand what is occurring, we can put in place strategies to prevent disease in horses and, in turn, reduce the risk to people," she said.

"We already know that flying foxes are attracted to particular types of trees and that the virus is likely to be transmitted through flying fox excretions.

"Consequently, we have provided advice to horse owners on how to feed and house their animals, as well as how to design their properties and what to plant to minimise the potential contact between flying foxes and horses."


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