A Hendra virus infection has been confirmed in an unvaccinated horse that was euthanased on Wednesday by a private vet on property near Tweed Heads in northern New South Wales.
It is the first outbreak of the bat-borne disease in the country in more than a year, with the last reported horse death in Lismore in August last year.
Hendra virus was first observed in 1994 when scientists identified the previously unknown virus after the death of Queensland horse trainer Vic Rail and 13 of his horses at Hendra, a Brisbane suburb, in 1994.
The NSW Department of Primary Industries’ chief veterinary officer Dr Sarah Britton said there were two horses that were owned by the neighbour that had been may been contact with infected horse.
“Those horses are under some movement restrictions and being monitored,” she said.
The dead horse and the two on the neighbouring properties had not been vaccinated against the deadly zoonotic disease.
“The owner of those two horses has been advised to vaccinate them against Hendra and hopefully that has been conducted,” she said.
But Dr Britton said the owner did not have a high risk of exposure to the horse and was not being tested or treated for Hendra.
“The horses are out in the paddock and owner hasn’t had any close contact or a risk factor for it,” she said.
“The horse is dead now so they don’t need to wear any PPE (personal protective equipment) but they need to disinfect and decontaminate the area and Local Land Services’ vets have been in to help with that process.”
Dr Britton said there were flying foxes in the vicinity of the property.
“Certainly if people understand that they should keep their horses away from flowering or fruiting trees, don’t put their feed and water under the tree and try to minimise any interaction they could potentially have with bats.
“When you see these cases like this and people exposed the fact that you can actually prevent this and people don’t have to go through this, I think it’s a very simple solution to a problem that doesn’t need to exist.
Since the first case of Hendra in the Brisbane suburb Hendra in 1994 more than 100 horses have died as a result of the virus and four humans.
Earlier this year horse owners launched a $53 million law suit against the pharmaceutical company responsible for developing the Hendra vaccine.
New research into treating people infected with the Hendra virus
The latest fatality to a horse exposed to the Hendra virus comes as researchers at Charles Sturt University (CSU) hope to be a step closer to treating people hit by the disease.
The “protein” which attacks the immune system in humans is also found in the equally deadly Nipah virus which, like Hendra, is transmitted from bats.
However, unlike Hendra which is transmitted via horse, it is pigs which Nipah first attacks before being passed on to humans.
While Hendra is better known in Australia, CSU researcher Professor Jade Forwood said Nipah was a major concern in Asia, India and Bangladesh.
“This protein helps to dampen our immune response to the virus. The virus makes the protein and allows the virus to replicate more efficiently,” he said.
“It causes more disease and we are interested in how and why this protein is causing these effects.”
Knowing the cause provides the researchers hope that a drug could be manufactured to assist people to recover from the two diseases.
The protein stops DNA material in human cells from being able to fight the virus once it enters the body.
“We are looking at how that W protein gets trafficked in and out of. If we can understand that then we can start to design drugs to inhibit that process” Professor Forwood said.
The work is aiming for a method of treatment and not a vaccination designed to stop the transmission of the two diseases.
“Our research would be along the lines of treatment so that a person infected by either Hendra or Nipah the hope is that it will enable humans to fight back against these viruses.”
While it is being developed to treat people already infected “theoretically” it could be possibly used as a form of vaccination.
“But this is very much different to a vaccine which is aimed at building up your immunity to that actual virus.”