Reducing the risk of Hendra virus infection

Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your animal may have Hendra virus infection. Veterinarians that suspect Hendra virus infection in a patient should follow standard procedures to investigate the situation.

As a horse owner or person dealing with horses, you have a general biosecurity obligation to take all reasonable and practical measures to prevent or minimise the effects of a biosecurity risk. Hendra virus poses a serious biosecurity risk. This means you are legally required to reduce the risk of Hendra virus infection and limit the spread of Hendra virus when dealing with horses and other possible carriers. Read more about what to do if you suspect your horse has Hendra virus.

If you become aware of the presence of Hendra virus infection in any species of animal, you must report it to Biosecurity Queensland on:

  • 13 25 23 during business hours
  • 1800 675 888 (Emergency Animal Disease Hotline) 24 hours per day.

It is believed that Hendra virus can be transmitted from flying fox to horse, from horse to horse, from horse to dog and from horse to human.

Research on Hendra virus is ongoing and continues to help us learn more about the disease, including how it is transmitted between species. Comprehensive information on Hendra virus research can be found in the Compendium of findings from the National Hendra Virus Research Program.

Hendra virus transmission to horses

It is believed that horses contract Hendra virus by coming into contact with material contaminated by infected flying fox body fluids and excretions. Hendra virus can potentially spread from horse to horse through:

  • direct contact with infectious body fluids
  • indirect contact via contaminated equipment that could transfer infectious body fluids from one horse to another.

Hendra virus is not very contagious and is more likely to occur in a single horse than in a number of horses. In paddock situations, most Hendra virus cases have involved a single infected horse that has died without any companion horses becoming infected.

However, on several occasions 1 or more companion horses have become infected after close contact with the first infected horse before or at the time of death.

Reducing the risk of horses becoming infected

Current understanding of the virus suggests a number of measures horse owners can take to reduce the risk of horses becoming infected with Hendra virus:

  • A registered vaccine is available to help prevent Hendra virus disease in horses. Vaccination of horses is the most effective way to help manage Hendra virus disease. Vaccination of horses provides a public health and work health and safety benefit by reducing the risk of Hendra virus transmission to humans and other susceptible animals. Whenever Hendra virus infection is suspected, even in vaccinated horses, appropriate biosecurity precautions including personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used as no vaccine can provide 100% guaranteed protection. Talk to your veterinarian about vaccinating your horse.
  • Reduce the risk of horse contact with flying foxes by
    • removing horse feed and water containers from under trees. If possible, place feed and water containers under a shelter.
    • inspecting and identifying flowering/fruiting trees/shrubs on your property. Remove horses from paddocks with trees/shrubs that attract flying foxes.
    • returning horses to paddocks with flowering/fruiting trees/shrubs only after the trees/shrubs have stopped flowering/fruiting and the flying foxes are gone. If you can't remove horses from the paddock
      • consider fencing (temporary or permanent) to restrict access to affected areas. Clean up fruit debris under the trees/shrubs before returning horses.
      • try temporarily removing horses during times of peak flying fox activity (usually at dusk and during the night).
  • Isolate sick horses from other horses, people and animals until you have a veterinarian's opinion. (See information on close contact further down the page).
  • If you have more than 1 horse on your property, handle unaffected horses first. Handle sick horses only after taking appropriate precautions. Read more about what personal protective equipment (PPE) to wear.
  • Clean and disinfect all gear exposed to any body fluids from sick horses before using it on another horse. This includes halters, lead ropes and twitches. Talk to your veterinarian about which cleaning agents and disinfectants to use.
  • When cleaning contaminated equipment from a sick horse, wear gloves, cover any cuts or grazes with a water-resistant dressing and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
  • Do not travel with, work on or take sick horses to other properties or equestrian events.
  • Do not allow visiting horse practitioners (e.g. farriers) to work on sick horses.
  • Seek veterinary advice before bringing a sick horse onto your property.

Hendra virus transmission to people

The few cases of Hendra virus infection in people have resulted from very close contact with respiratory secretions (e.g. mucus) and/or blood from an infected horse.

Other people who have reported having some contact with infected horses have remained well, and their testing showed no evidence of Hendra virus infection.

There is no evidence of Hendra virus spreading from human to human or from flying fox to human.

Reducing the risk of people becoming infected

People could be potentially exposed to Hendra virus while handling infected horses (whether the sick horse is alive or dead).

Hendra virus can be a life-threatening illness, so you need to be aware and carefully consider your safety whenever you suspect the virus is present. Be cautious with sick horses and always ensure the personal safety of yourself and others.

The following steps are recommended to reduce the risk of people becoming infected with Hendra virus:

  • Routinely use safe practices for all contact with horses, horse blood and body fluids, as well as any associated equipment. This includes
    • washing hands regularly and cover any cut/wound with a water-resistant dressing
    • maintaining standards of cleanliness and stable hygiene
    • cleaning and disinfecting equipment that has been in contact with horses' body fluids.
  • If you have a sick horse, isolate it from other horses, people and animals (e.g. move companion animals to another area) until you have obtained a veterinary opinion. Your vet will decide if they need to take samples from the horse for testing. Until your vet advises otherwise, avoid close contact with the horse under investigation for Hendra virus and other animals that have been in contact with it. Wait until your veterinarian gives you the test results.
  • If you must have close contact with a horse under investigation, always take the following precautions
    • cover cuts and abrasions with a water-resistant dressing
    • put on all of the wearable personal protective equipment (PPE) in your kit before approaching the horse
    • after handling any horse, remove and dispose of the PPE carefully, making no contact with your facial area, particularly your eyes, mouth and nose
    • immediately wash your hands with soap and water, and dry properly, or use hand wipes and waterless hand hygiene solution
    • carefully remove any clothing contaminated with a sick horse's body fluids.
  • If you have handled a sick horse, take the following precautions before having contact with other horses or people
    • wash off any contamination with plenty of soap and water
    • shower and wash your hair
    • change your clothes and footwear.
  • Arrange your activities so that you handle unaffected horses first and have contact with the sick horse last.

Understanding 'close contact'

In the context of Hendra virus prevention, the term 'close contact' means within 5m of an infected animal without any protective barrier (i.e. a wall).

To isolate an infected horse from other animals and people, we suggest separating them by:

  • a distance of 5m or more
  • or
  • with a barrier, such as a full-height wall that prevents direct contact between animals.

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