A small outbreak of the potentially deadly Hendra virus was identified in a group of horses near Brisbane, Australia. This virus has caused periodic cases of illness and death in horses, and can be transmitted to people working closely with infected horses. In the latest outbreak, 3 horses have died, making this the worst outbreak since 1994 when 14 horses and 2 people died.  Now, a human case has been identified. This person works at a veterinary clinic that treated infected horses. This individual was admitted to hospital overnight but was discharged, so is presumably not very ill.

While Hendra virus (genus Henipavirus) is only found in Australia, it is a good reminder for everyone about the strange nature of some infectious diseases. The natural reservoir of the virus is the fruit bat. It is believed that horses become exposed when infected fruit bats give birth and contaminate horse pastures with uterine fluids. Horses develop respiratory disease ranging from mild to fatal. Human cases have been reported in people working closely with infected horses. A horse trainer and veterinarian’s assistant died in the 1994 outbreak. Close contact is required for transmission to people.

Picture: Locations of previous Henipavirus outbreaks (red stars – Hendra virus; blue stars – Nipah virus) and distribution of Henipavirus flying fox reservoirs (red shading – Hendra virus; blue shading – Nipah virus)

It’s very difficult to take specific measures to protect horses, people or other animals from sporadic, rare diseases such as Hendravirus infection. However, common sense infection control measures can reduce the risks associated with any animal contact.

  • Wash your hands after contact with any animal.
  • Avoid contact with sick animals – consider sick animals to be potentially infectious until proven otherwise.
  • Remember that  new animal diseases are regularly being identified, and that they might be able to infect people.
  • People that work in veterinary clinics must be diligent and use good infection control practices because they are at higher risk of exposure to various diseases.