‘This really is a great day for the veterinary profession’

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Black Flying Fox (Pteropus alecto) at rest, in Brisbane, Queensland.
Black Flying Fox (Pteropus alecto) at rest, in Brisbane, Queensland. © James Niland

A vaccine against the deadly Hendra virus has been commercially launched.

The news was welcomed by the Australian Veterinary Association, which said it was a great day for the veterinary profession.

It recommended that all horses in Australia be vaccinated against the disease.

The vaccine, called Equivac HeV and launched by Pfizer Animal Health, has been fast-tracked by authorities and released under special conditions.

Only veterinarians who have completed an online training module managed by the manufacturer will be accredited to administer the vaccine.

The vaccine is a crucial breakthrough in the fight against the bat-borne virus, which is able to infect horses.

The virus is then able to make the jump from infected horses to humans. Four of the seven human cases have proven fatal. Three of the fatalities were veterinarians.

The disease was first identified in 1994 in the Brisbane suburb of Hendra, when horse trainer Vic Rail became the first fatality.

Since then, the virus is known to have killed 81 horses – nine of them this year.

Fruit bats, known as flying foxes, are the natural hosts of the virus.

It is thought that Hendra virus is transmitted to horses through feed contaminated with fruit bat urine, faeces or body fluids.

Hendra virus can be spread from horse to horse and from horse to human through close contact with respiratory secretions and/or blood from an infected horse.

All horses who test positive to the virus are euthanized.

Symptoms include fever, nasal discharge, clumsiness or difficulty walking, muscle twitching, increased breathing rate or difficulty breathing, and poor appetite.

The virus is considered a vital step in trying to break the cycle of infection that puts humans potentially exposed to infected horses at risk.

In all, about 60 researchers contributed to the development of the vaccine.

Australian Veterinary Association president Dr Ben Gardiner said the organisation was thrilled at the release of the vaccine.

“This will make a real difference to protect horses, but also to protect people against this deadly virus,” he said.

“Given that most of the people who have become infected were working in veterinary practice at the time, this really is a great day for the veterinary profession.

“But it’s also a great day for horses and their owners and handlers, and it’s a great day for Australian veterinary research to have developed a vaccine against this deadly virus here in Australia.”

Hendra virus has dramatically changed the life of vets working with horses, because the signs of infection in a horse can be extremely varied and are similar to a wide range of other conditions.

“We recommend that all horses should be vaccinated against Hendra virus, especially in the known higher-risk areas,” he said.

“This will protect the horses, but more importantly protect vets and other people in contact with horses. From a vet’s perspective, this is very much a workplace health and safety issue,” Gardiner said.

The highest risk areas in Queensland and New South Wales will have access to the vaccine first, but horses travel around Australia regularly, and antibodies have been found in flying foxes in all parts of the country.

“That’s why the Australian Veterinary Association recommends that all horses are eventually vaccinated for Hendra virus,” Gardiner said.

“Finally, the risk of being confronted with a Hendra virus infected horse will not disappear in a hurry, so horse handlers and vets still need to be very careful around sick horses, remembering to practise good hygiene and to wear appropriate personal protective equipment.”

 

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