A Queensland politician has gone in to bat for Australian horse owners frustrated by veterinarians who refuse to treat horses that have not been vaccinated against Hendra.
Some vets are taking the stance amid fears they will be prosecuted under health and safety laws if they treat an unvaccinated horse that later presents with Hendra infection.
The bat-borne virus is capable of infecting horses. People who come into close contact with the bodily fluids of infected horses can catch the virus. Of the seven known Hendra cases in humans, four have proved fatal.
The Labor member for Mirani, Jim Pearce, says he has received nearly 5500 messages of support since he took up the issue three weeks ago.
The availability of the vaccine for horses has been hailed as a major advance in the fight against the disease, but some horse owners are reluctant to use it. Some vets, in turn, are refusing to treat horses that have not received the vaccine.
Pearce said the “standoff” was getting out of hand and needed to be resolved sooner rather than later.
“The idea of vets refusing to treat sick or injured horses that have not been vaccinated against Hendra virus is one that fails to stand up to the ethical standards of veterinary medicine, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries biosecurity guidelines and workplace health and safety guidelines for the handling of potential Hendra virus infection in horses,” he said.
At last count, he had received nearly 5500 messages either via social media, phone, or emails. They came from horse owners frustrated or distressed over the way they were being treated by vets.
“Information coming through continually relates to horse fatalities caused by vets refusing to treat, intimidation by vets, dissemination of false information and third party pressure.
He criticised the RSPCA, suggesting it had “gone to sleep on this one”, and labeled the “no vaccination-no treatment” policy of vets as embarrassing.
“Vets are refusing to attend and treat horses for injuries or symptoms suggesting illness because they have been told that they will be prosecuted by Work Place Health & Safety if they treat a horse that later presents with a Hendra infection.”
Pearce called for an end to the “standoff” between the Department of Workplace Health and Safety and Queensland veterinarians or they would have to take the blame for a collapsing equine sport and industry.
He said the issue was starting to have serious financial repercussions on the economy and many businesses.
Pearce said the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) was the industry body that sat down with Workplace Health & Safety officials to formulate the guidelines applied to veterinarians working both in the field and in equine hospitals.
He argued that if these guidelines were untenable and were allowing vets to be prosecuted for performing their daily work then the responsibility lay with the AVA to return to the table with authorities to review them, enabling vets to work without fear of prosecution.
“The horse owners and their animals should not be paying with their safety, health and horse’s welfare – if the AVA has not performed the duties its members expect from it.”
Pearce said vets were trained in the handling and treatment of sick and injured horses.
“They are the professionals trained in the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the policies and procedures that are in place to protect themselves and others whilst they do their daily work.
He said “no vaccination – no treatment” amounted to a human health and welfare issue, with people being left in some cases to their own devices to treat sick or injured horses.
Pearce said all stakeholders should be working together to resolve the problem.
“There is a need to create policies and best-practice principles that increase safety and are in the best interest of the equine industry and veterinarians.”
Pearce noted that there had been only one case of Hendra virus infection in a horse in Queensland in 2015. There have been no human infections or deaths from Hendra virus since 2009.
“A proper perspective of the Hendra ‘threat’ needs to be disseminated to the vets and the public.
“The virus is extremely rare and very difficult to catch and has never been contracted by anyone wearing personal protective equipment.”
He argued that personal protective equipment and hygiene measures would allow for vets to test, diagnose, and treat unvaccinated horses safely.
“The question that should be asked is what vets are going to do about their neglect of human and horse welfare, and the damage to their professional reputation over this morally embarrassing standoff.”
Pearce reported on an October 29 meeting with representatives of the equine industry and the Queensland Government.
“It was evident from this meeting that the representative from the office of Bill Byrne, Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, and Biosecurity Queensland have a clear understanding of the issues and recognise that these matters need to be resolved.
“There will now be a departmental process of investigation and potential decision-making.”