Hendra virus claims third New South Wales horse in a month

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A coloured transmission electron micrograph of the Hendra, virus. Photo: The Electron Microscopy Unit of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, part of the CSIRO science agency CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
A coloured transmission electron micrograph of the Hendra virus. Photo: The Electron Microscopy Unit of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, part of the CSIRO science agency CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A third horse fatality in less than four weeks from the dangerous Hendra virus has seen Australian vets renew their call for owners to vaccinate against the disease.

The three recent deaths have all been in northeastern New South Wales.

The latest involved a Welsh pony mare euthanized near Lismore on Saturday.

The state’s chief veterinary officer, Dr Christine Middlemiss, said samples from the horse were sent for laboratory analysis. Testing confirmed Hendra virus infection.

“The 12-year-old Welsh pony mare was noticed to be unusually quiet and disorientated by its owners on August 3,” she said.

“A private veterinarian took samples from the horse on August 4 where it was also found to be suffering fever, increased respiration, poor circulation and grinding its teeth.”

Another horse and two dogs in contact with the infected horse were being monitored, she said.

“The property is now under movement restrictions by north coast Local Land Services.”

All known cases of Hendra have occurred in Queensland or northern New South Wales, but cases could occur wherever there were flying foxes or in horses that had recent contact with flying foxes.

Equine Veterinarians Australia renewed their call for horse owners to vaccinate their horses.

Its president, Dr Ben Poole, said it was critical that horses in and around high-risk Hendra areas were vaccinated against Hendra virus.

“Another three horses in New South Wales have died from this preventable disease, which poses serious health risks not just to horses, but humans as well.”

From 1994, when the virus was first identified, to August 2017, there have been 60 known Hendra incidents resulting in the death of 102 horses. During this period, Queensland has recorded 40 incidents and NSW has had 20.

“Every one of these horses … represents one more compelling reason for horse owners to vaccinate their horses.

“The risk this disease poses to human health is also very real and it is important that the equine community remains vigilant in protecting horses and people from Hendra,” Poole said.

Since the first outbreak was recorded in 1994, there have been seven confirmed cases in people, all of whom had significant contact with horse body fluids. Of those who tested positive for Hendra, four died, including two veterinarians.

Poole said the vaccine, introduced in 2012, was the most effective way to minimise the risk posed by Hendra virus.

“Vaccination is the most effective way to ensure high standards of horse health and welfare while also protecting veterinarians, horse handlers and owners from contracting this deadly virus,” he said.

“Hendra virus is impossible to diagnose without laboratory testing. The signs of this disease can be extremely variable. When your horse is vaccinated against Hendra virus, the probability of your horse having the disease is extremely low and therefore is more likely to receive timely and appropriate therapies.

“We need to remember,” he continued, “that right across the country, there are thousands of equine events every year. These events bring together a large number of horses from a wide range of geographical locations, and this compounds the risks associated with Hendra virus infection if horses have not been vaccinated.”

The other two deaths were near Murwillumbah, and another also near Lismore. Both horses were unvaccinated.

The Murwillumbah case involved a 14-year-old gelding who was noticed by his owner to be lethargic and not eating properly.

The horse deteriorated, becoming unsteady on its feet and unwilling to move. On examination the horse also had decreased gut sounds, a temperature and poor circulatory function.

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