As if horse owners and veterinarians in Queensland need another infectious disease challenge…..

Recently, a horse in southwest Queensland was diagnosed with Australian bat lyssavirus infection. This virus, which is similar to rabies, is present in some bats in Australia. It can be transmitted to people from bats, causing fatal disease, but human infections are very rare. Even though it’s rare, it warrants attention because the disease is so severe.

Finding an infected horse is surprising in some ways, because the virus has never been detected in this species before. However, a virus that’s present in bats can certainly find its way into a horse, and we already knew that a closely related virus (rabies) can infect horses. So, maybe it’s not that surprising afterall.

In this case, the horse was suspected of being infected with Hendra virus initially. While Australian bat lyssavirus can kill people, this diagnosis was actually much better than Hendra virus infection, because horse-human transmission of Hendra is a major concern. Hendra virus infections have high fatality rates and, perhaps most importantly, there are no effective preventative measures that can be taken after Hendra virus exposure. Since Australian bat lyssavirus is so closely related to rabies virus, rabies post-exposure treatment can be used in this case (and is probably effective).

It’s unclear whether an infected horse poses much risk to people. The very small number of human Australian bat lyssavirus cases have occured in people who were bitten or scratched by bats. Since this is the first equine case, it’s not known if affected horses shed large amounts of (or any) virus. People who had contact with the horse were identified and offered post-exposure treatment. It’s reasonable to consider this situation like rabies exposure in the absence of more evidence, and treat people who were bitten or otherwise may have gotten virus-contaminated saliva into their tissues via broken skin or mucous membranes.

Is this the start of yet another new problem?

Most likely, this is just an example of the rare scenario of a virus infecting an atypical host, not the start of a new, common problem. However, it’s worthy of attention in case the virus has changed or there is now a specific virus type that can more easily infect horses (both very unlikely). This case also shows the importance of thorough diagnostic testing, particularly when an animal has severe disease.

If you don’t look, you don’t find.

If you don’t find, you can’t act.