Australian horse owners are being warned to take precautions against Hendra virus as the season for the infection approaches.
Australian Veterinary Association president Dr Barry Smyth said that with Hendra cases on the rise, particularly in the eastern states, anyone working with horses should take caution around any sick horse.
“Our knowledge of how the Hendra virus is spread is still limited, and it is difficult to predict what effect the recent wet weather will have,” Smyth said.
“We do know that the Hendra virus is present in all flying fox populations and that the virus can shed at particular times with the fluid secretion of the flying fox including from saliva and urine.
“Horse owners should take caution around places flying foxes congregate and move horses and their food and water away from contaminated areas, particularly under trees, where high concentrations of virus material are deposited from bats. These are high risk areas for horses.
“People should also take precautions around horses with suspected signs of Hendra virus,” he said.
Common signs to look out for with Hendra infections in horses include respiratory distress, neurological problems, elevated body temperature (above 40 degrees Celsius), elevated heart rate and depression. However, it is important to be aware there are no specific signs of Hendra infection.
The small number of human Hendra virus cases – seven in all, four of which proved fatal – has been the result of very close contact with horses infected with the virus. However the association cautions people to be alert around all sick horses.
“The risk can be greatly reduced by adopting good hygiene practices as a matter of routine and taking increased precautions around any sick horse.
“It’s also important to wash your hands and equipment with soap and water regularly before, during and after handling all horses and minimise contact with your horse if it is unwell.”
Since 1994, Hendra virus has been confirmed in 68 horses. All horses either died or were euthanised.
The AVA eagerly awaits the availability of the Hendra vaccine for horses and believes that all horses should be vaccinated against the disease.
In the meantime, contact your veterinarian immediately if you notice health problems in your horses or suspect they may be infected with the virus.