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What is Hendra virus?
Hendra virus (HeV) occurs naturally in flying foxes where it appears to cause little or no signs of illness. For reasons not completely understood at present, at times the virus is shed in flying fox body secretions including urine, faeces, saliva and birthing fluids. Horses can become infected by HeV if they ingest or inhale these contaminated body secretions.
Clinical signs in sick horses are variable but usually they develop a fever and appear unwell. There is usually respiratory distress with nasal discharge and sometimes neurological signs such as twitching, circling, and unsteadiness are seen. Although flying fox secretions are the most common means of horse infection, horse to horse infection also appears to occur.
Humans become infected from handling infected horses without using protective equipment. There is no evidence that there is direct flying fox to human infection. The disease is extremely rare but has a mortality rate of at least 50%.
A dog on a property with infected horses tested positive for HeV antibodies for the first time. It is thought that the dog became infected from the horses. There is currently no evidence that dogs can transmit the disease to humans.
A vaccine has been developed to protect horses from Hendra disease. If horses do not develop the disease then they are unable to pass it on to humans. The vaccination protocol involves an initial two doses and then an annual booster. There are no vaccines available to protect humans directly.
The RSPCA strongly supports the vaccination of all horses in areas at risk of Hendra disease. If a horse is unvaccinated most veterinarians will not treat the horse until an exclusion blood test has been carried out to show the horse does not have Hendra disease. The results of the exclusion test can take 24-48 hours to be available and in that time the untreated horse may deteriorate and suffer unalleviated symptoms.
All persons interacting with horses should take steps to protect themselves from the potential risk of coming into contact with the Hendra virus. For the latest information on Hendra virus, the vaccine and advice on these protective steps please visit the Biosecurity Queensland website: https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/animal-industries/animal-health-and-diseases/a-z-list/hendra-virus
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