While you don’t want to read too much into a single case, 2012 has started off in a bad way for Queensland horses. Hendra virus was identified in a Townsville area horses that died. This zoonotic viral disease is largely restricted to Queensland, Australia, but it has a high fatality rate in horses (and people). Hendra virus is spread by fruit bats and is an ever-present concern to Queensland horse owners and veterinarians, but a mid-summer infection is quite unusual (remember that it’s currently mid-summer in Australia). Most cases tend to occur from July to September – this case is a reminder that seasonal trends are just that: trends, not absolute rules.
Fortunately, the attending veterinarian used proper precautions when handling the horse to limit the risk of zoonotic transmission of Hendra virus. However, there will presumably be an investigation to determine who had contact with the horse and their potential for exposure. There is currently no way to prevent or specifically treat Hendra virus infection. An experimental antiviral treatment has been tried in the past, but it’s effectiveness if far from clear.
Last year was quite bad in terms of the number of Hendra cases that were detected in Australia. Let’s hope this early 2012 case isn’t a sign of things to come.