Four people exposed to horses infected with Hendra virus in Australia are taking an experimental drug to try to prevent or reduce the severity of infection. All are currently healthy, but it is unknown whether the virus is incubating in them and whether disease may develop.  People can be infected with this virus through close contact with infected horses, as was the case with these four individuals. While human infections are rare, 50% of infected people die. Therefore, it’s understandable that they would choose to try an experimental treatment.

These people will be treated for five days with intravenous ribavirin, an antiviral drug. There is evidence that ribavirin can kill Hendra virus in the laboratory, but it’s not known if it actually does anything in infected people. It has some potential adverse effects, but given the severity of disease and high risk that these people have been exposed, it’s certainly a reasonable decision. This treatment was also used in the Hendra virus outbreak in 2008. One person died, one survived after a long stay in ICU, and one did not get sick.  It’s not known whether the drug did anything to help. The death of the treated person doesn’t necessarily mean the treatment is not useful for some people or for certain stages of infection. Hopefully, ribavirin has a better chance of working when infection is only developing, before these people get sick.

This Worms & Germs blog entry was originally posted on equIDblog on 13-Aug-09.