Vets urge horses, owners to get Hendra virus vaccine as new strain identified



Equine vets are urging horse breeders and owners to vaccinate against Hendra virus, following the discovery of a new strain of the deadly virus by Australian researchers.

The research project, titled Horses as Sentinels, has linked the new strain, found in a flying fox in Adelaide, to a previously unexplained death of a horse in an undisclosed area of Australia in 2015.

Peter Reid, a veterinary scientist with the Australian Veterinary Association [AVA], said that breeds of flying foxes that had not been known to transmit Hendra virus in the past could be carrying the new strain in areas previously deemed as low risk.

These areas include parts of New South Wales, Victoria and southern Australia, where grey-headed flying foxes are found.

‘It progresses very quickly’

Hendra virus, which was first recorded in Australia in 1994, can infect both humans and horses.

The virus has a recorded mortality rate for of approximately 79 per cent for horses and 60 per cent for humans who contract it.

Since its discovery, it is known to have killed more than 100 horses and four people.

Two people fully covered in protective clothing inspect a horse with covers over its body.
The traditional Hendra virus has a mortality rate of 79 per cent for affected horses.(Supplied: NSW Primary Industries Department)

“Typical symptoms are very acute severe onset of usually neurologic signs, as well as some respiratory components as well,” Lisanne Gallant, from Newcastle Equine Hospital, said.

Dr Gallant said symptoms included “discharge from the nostrils, laboured breathing, increased respiratory rates, as well as other neurologic signs like a wobbly stance”.

Fatalities could typically be quite quick.

New variant uncovered

Dr Reid said the new variant was uncovered after the development of a new test.

“We were able to get some samples that have been archived in the Queensland Department of Agriculture, and some of those samples were able to be re-tested with a new test … and bingo,” he said.

“It lit up that there was this new strain that’s never been seen before.”

Dr Reid said the strain had “minimal different characteristics to traditional Hendra at this stage” but was equally as lethal.

“We suspect there are probably horses that have tested negative to the traditional strain of Hendra over the years that may have actually died from it.”

Vaccination the best protection

Leading vets and equine experts are urging those with horses to pursue vaccination in light of the discovery, even though this new strain has only been identified in minimal cases.

Wauchope vet Michael Ferguson administers vaccination to horse Jimmy.
A vet administers a vaccine against the virus.(ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

The researchers believe that the pre-existing vaccinations will effectively prevent contraction of this new strain.

Jane Bennett, from the Hunter Local Land Services, said the government body was working with experts to better understand the variant.

Dr Bennett said vaccination was key to preventing Hendra deaths.

“It is certainly a reminder to everybody that vaccination is the best protection,” Dr Bennett said.

Dr Bennett said vaccine take-up for Hendra virus had slowed in recent years, and had been a contentious topic during previous outbreaks.

“We always recommend that vaccination is the best, but we understand that individual horse owners are going to make their own decisions on those [matters],” she said.

She said the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute [EMAI] in Menangle, NSW, and Local Land Services were working on developing a new Hendra test.

“[EMAI] are likely to introduce the new-variant test into their routine Hendra testing in the not too distant future,” Dr Bennett said.


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