Cash was a strong, healthy horse before he contracted the Hendra virus.
Cash was a strong, healthy horse before he contracted the Hendra virus. Craig Warhurst

Hendra virus advice

ADVICE to horse owners and handlers following the Hendra (HeV) virus outbreak at Tewantin is to keep horses away from flying fox colonies and immediately report to authorities any flu-like symptoms in their animals.

However, some Gympie region horse owners are wondering how they do that, given large numbers of flying foxes fly over their properties every evening on their way to their night feeding grounds.

Gympie veterinarian and racing identity Ted Fisher said it was a real concern for people who ran horses under the flight path of flying foxes.

He said owners/handlers with horses living in close proximity to these colonies should be observant when horses displayed symptoms of illness and inform their vet of specific symptoms and details at the initial phone call.

“The earlier cases of Hendra – or Morbillivirus as it was called then – was more respiratory symptoms,” he said. “Then these others were a little bit different – more neurological symptoms.”

Common signs to look out for in horses include respiratory distress, frothy nasal discharge, elevated body temperature (above 40°C) and elevated heart rate, Dr Fisher said.

But there may be nervous signs of weakness or staggering, so it is important to realise there are no specific signs of infection.

In the Tewantin case, the horse was a healthy six-year-old gelding.

Rebecca Day has said her daughter Mollie's horse Cash was “a little bit wobbly on his legs… his nose was scrunched up like he had a stroke or something…”

CSIRO's Dr Deborah Middleton said signs that people may be dealing with a case of HeV were not necessarily obvious.

Horse handlers needed “to have Hendra in the back of your mind as a possibility”, she said.

Because the virus was relatively fragile, risk of infection could be minimised by adopting good hygiene practices, particularly where horses were kept in confined areas, said Dr Fisher.

Risk management measures include placing feed and water under cover where possible, not placing feed and water under trees when flying foxes are in the area, not using feed that might attract flying foxes (such as molasses, fruit and vegetables), removing horses from paddocks where and when flying foxes are active, and fencing off trees where flying foxes roost.

As well, keep any sick horse isolated from other horses, people and animals until you have obtained a veterinarian's opinion.

In particular, people are cautioned against coming into contact with blood, saliva and other bodily fluids from ailing animals.

Clinical trials of a horse vaccine for HeV by the CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory should start within months after the Queensland and federal governments committed funds for the study.

Meanwhile, Ms Day and Mollie are being monitored in the Princess Alexandra Hospital after receiving an infusion of an experimental Hendra virus anti-serum on Thursday.

Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said the course of action was considered necessary because the pair had “significant exposure” to the horse.

“There is a real risk that these people will go on to develop a full-blown Hendra infection and, unfortunately, we know four of the seven people who have gone on to do that have died,” Dr Young said.

The drug has prevented the Hendra virus in ferrets and monkeys.

Unfortunately, it failed, in a desperate last attempt, to save the life of Rockhampton vet Alister Rodgers as he lay in a coma in 2009.

Biosecurity Queensland has launched an investigation into two fruit bat colonies near the Tewantin property.

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