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Vigilance best defence against Hendra - vets

July 1, 2011

Knowledge and vigilance are the best defences against the potentially deadly Hendra virus, the Australian Veterinary Association says.

"Horse owners and vets in Queensland are feeling understandably nervous with the latest equine Hendra case, but knowing what to look for and being careful around sick horses will help keep people safe from this virus," said Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) President, Dr Barry Smyth.

"Hendra virus cases are fairly uncommon, and it's not terribly contagious. People can only be infected by significant contact with a horse that has the disease. However, the consequences of infection are extremely serious.

"Horse owners around Australia need to be very careful when dealing with sick horses. The signs of Hendra can be quite varied, and mimic other less serious conditions.

"So you should practise good hygiene around sick horses, limit contact with their body fluids, and call a vet as soon as you notice any signs of illness. These include fever, depression, wobbly or unstable movement, trouble breathing or nasal discharge," he said.

"Veterinarians are very much in the firing line of this disease given their close contact with sick horses. So we're extremely keen for the Hendra horse vaccine to be available as soon as possible, and for horses to be vaccinated."

Scientists have had success in research to develop a vaccine, but a commercial product is several years away.

"We'll be lobbying hard for all horses in Queensland and northern New South Wales to be vaccinated, along with as many as possible in other parts of the country," Smyth said.

"We think that vaccination should be a condition of entry into events, races and shows.

"An identification system through microchipping and keeping accurate records in a good database will be needed for us to be sure our patients have been vaccinated.

"It's not an easy thing to know that you could catch a life-threatening disease by going to work. It will be a great step forward for equine veterinarians when the widespread use of a Hendra horse vaccine lowers their chances of infection."

Hendra virus is found naturally in Australia's flying fox populations and causes disease when horses come into contact with flying foxes.

Horse owners can reduce the risks of Hendra virus in their horses by fencing off trees attractive to flying foxes, covering horse feed and water containers, and not feeding horses with food that could appeal to flying foxes such as fruit and vegetables.



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