The latest edition of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases contains a paper describing the 2008  Australian Hendra virus outbreak in horses and people.

In this outbreak, there were five horses infected and two humans infected. The horses predominantly had signs of neurological disease, not respiratory disease like some other reports describing this disease. Four horses died. One recovered but was euthanized for public health reasons.

Two people became infected after working with the sick horses, which represents 10% of the total veterinary staff that were exposed to the infected horses.  Both people started off with influenza-like illness, which seemed to improve initially, but then signs of severe neurological disease developed. They were treated with ribavirin, an antiviral drug, as part of an experimental treatment. One of them died after 40 days of illness, the other person survived.

The authors stressed that the effectiveness of ribavirin could not be determined, but they recommend it nonetheless because of the severity of Hendra virus infection and lack of other options. Ribavirin was also used in the 2009 outbreak, but it is clearly not 100% effective since one person died there also.

A number of concerning activities occurred that put people at risk of infection, including a "percutaneous blood exposure while euthanizing an infected horses" (they didn’t explain exactly what this was, but it could have been a needlestick), low use of personal protective equipment, and contact with potentially infectious body fluids. This is unfortunately not surprising since the approach to infection control (particularly in terms of zoonotic infections) is often lax in equine medicine. That certainly has to change, particularly in areas where Hendra virus may be present.

Much more information about how to control this potentially devastating virus is needed. Fortunately, infections are uncommon and it is restricted to a fairly small geographic range in Queensland, Australia.

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This Worms & Germs blog entry was originally posted on equIDblog on 27-Jan-10.