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Hendra season is close, minister warns

May 19, 2011

Horse owners in vulnerable areas of Australia are being urged to be on the lookout for Hendra infection in their horses as the high-risk season approaches.

The warning comes the same week as news of development of a successful experimental vaccine against the deadly virus, which is carried by Australian native fruit bats, called flying foxes.

The virus is able to infect horses and can then be transmitted to people, with potentially fatal consequences.

Queensland agriculture minister Tim Mulherin said coming months will see increased birthing activity among flying foxes, which in the past has coincided with known Hendra infection incidents.

"It is a timely reminder that horse owners should be vigilant in reducing contact between their horses and flying foxes, regardless of what time of year it is," Mr Mulherin said.

He said the state government had made significant efforts to raise awareness of Hendra virus in the community, identify ways to reduce the risk of horses and humans becoming infected, and improving preparedness for handling Hendra virus incidents.

Last year, Biosecurity Queensland veterinarians visited over 100 private veterinary practices in Queensland to deliver practical resources on Hendra virus and discuss ways to reduce the risk of this deadly virus.

Mulherin said some Australian scientists had recently joined forces with the United Nations to help fight the spread of infectious diseases linked to bats.

"The scientists, from the Queensland Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, are part of a team of international experts tasked by the UN to develop a manual for the investigation of emerging infectious diseases associated with bats," he said.

"Queensland is the frontline state for researching and responding to such diseases. Our scientists have been called upon to share their knowledge and expertise at an international level.

"This work will greatly benefit developing nations that can't dedicate the same level of resources that Queensland can."

Biosecurity Queensland principal scientist Dr Hume Field said in recent years, emerging diseases from bats had occurred with increasing frequency worldwide.

"As many of these diseases can be transmitted from animals to humans, this manual will be important in helping veterinary and animal health workers recognise clinical signs in animals early, limit any transmission, and manage the disease safely and effectively," Field said.

The manual focuses on four key virus groups - Henipavirus (includes Hendra and Nipah viruses), Lyssavirus, Coronavirus and Filovirus. It guides investigators through:

Field said giving veterinary and animal health workers a better understanding of emerging animal diseases improved not only animal health but benefited human health, where some animal diseases can cross over to humans.

"We are equally interested in understanding the ecological pressures that have led to the increased emergence of these diseases, so that in future we can hopefully prevent emergence before it occurs."

Along with Field, Biosecurity Queensland Scientist Carol de Jong co-wrote and co-edited the manual, with fellow Scientists Craig Smith and Janine Barrett contributing to chapters in their areas of expertise.

The manual will soon be released online.



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