Hendra virus

Hendra virus is a disease carried by flying foxes (also called fruit bats).

In rare instances, the virus spreads from the flying foxes to horses causing them severe illness.

Hendra infection of people is rarer still, but it has happened after exposure to the infected blood or body substances of an infected horse.

Infection locations and symptoms

Hendra virus was first detected in 1994 in the suburb of Hendra, Brisbane. Since then, it has been found throughout Queensland and north-eastern NSW.  Most incidents have occurred between May and August, however infections have occurred in other months, too.

Hendra outbreaks can occur wherever flying foxes and horses are located near each other, and although outbreaks are sporadic, they often occur in clusters.

The virus can cause a range of clinical signs in horses: they are non-specific and may vary. Symptoms include:

  • rapid onset of illness
  • fever
  • increased heart rate
  • breathing difficulties, increased respiratory rate and nasal discharge
  • neurological signs, such as wobbly gait, loss of vision, muscle twitching and inability to rise
  • sudden death.

Preventing Hendra infection in horses

Vaccinating your horses is the most effective way of reducing the risk of Hendra virus infection. The vaccine is widely available from veterinarians and is highly recommended as a first order control measure.

How to manage Hendra infection

Unvaccinated horses may be infectious before they show any sign of illness, so persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) who keep horses – particularly those in north-eastern NSW – should develop a written plan to manage a suspect or confirmed cases of Hendra virus in your workplace. The plan should include limiting possible exposure of workers, family (including domestic pets) and visitors, as well as a method of disposal for any infected carcass. Workers must be trained in how to implement the plan.

Strict precautions must be taken when caring for sick or suspect horses:

  • immediately isolate any sick or suspect horse (generally, it’s better to move the healthy animals away)
  • ideally, avoid all contact with a suspect horse until a veterinarian has investigated. If necessary, contact the Department of Primary Industries for diagnostic testing and advice
  • arrange work activities so that healthy animals are always handled before any sick or suspect animals
  • avoid direct contact with a sick or suspect horse’s blood and other body substances, especially any mouth and nose secretion
  • always practice good hygiene, including after handling equipment used with a sick or suspect horse (particularly bridles, halters and lead ropes because they’ve been in contact with the horse’s mouth and nose secretions). Hands should be washed with soap and water and dried thoroughly with disposable paper towel.
  • cover any cuts or abrasions with waterproof dressings before handling a horse.
  • ensure yards and stables are kept clean and hygienic
  • full personal protective equipment (PPE) must be worn by anyone needing to be within five metres of a sick or suspect horse. This includes:
    • disposable, impervious overalls with full head protection
    • rubber boots
    • disposable gloves
    • facial shields, non-vented safety glasses (or included in respiratory protection)
    • disposable P2 particulate respirators (Note: these are only effective for clean shaven people. People with beards or significant stubble will need to wear powered air purifying respirator to ensure protection)
  • carefully clean and disinfect all equipment that has been in contact with a sick or suspect horse’s blood and body substances before being used again with another horse. The Hendra virus is very fragile and is easily killed by heat, soap, detergents and common disinfectants
  • seek medical advice immediately if you suspect anyone at your workplace may have contracted the virus.

Further information

For more information, see the Hendra virus web pages for the Department of Primary Industries and NSW Health. There is also a summary of Hendra virus incidents.

Catalogue No. WC03470 Copyright WorkCover NSW 1015

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