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Hendra virus is a type of rare zoonotic disease. It can be passed from an infected horse to a human. The virus is named after the location where it was first isolated, in Australia.

While Hendra virus does not appear to be very contagious, humans and horses are susceptible to the disease. All human infections have occurred following direct exposure to tissues and secretions from infected or dead horses. There is no evidence of human to human transmission. This means that a person infected with Hendra virus is of no risk to others.

The incubation period (time from exposure to presentation of symptoms) in humans has been estimated at 5 to 21 days.

The natural host for Hendra virus in Australia is the flying fox. It is not clear how horses become infected, but this may occur by them eating food contaminated by bat urine or birthing products.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms in horses

The symptoms of Hendra virus in a horse include:

  • Frothy nasal mucus
  • High temperature
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Muscle spasms and twitching
  • Muscle weakness
  • Balance difficulties

Symptoms in humans

The symptoms of infection in a person can include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat 
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Dizziness
  • Unusual sleepiness
  • Confusion

Treatment options

As with all medical conditions, seek an accurate diagnosis and treatment from your GP. The cases of Hendra virus reported in Australia have all been in people who had close contact with infected horses. There is no cure or specific medical treatment for Hendra virus and a vaccine is still in the developmental stage. Without prompt medical attention, the complications of Hendra virus can be fatal. Medical management may involve hospital admission and close monitoring; medication and fluids given intravenously and life support if necessary.

The best defence is avoiding contact with an infected horse. If you are in close contact with horses, be aware of, and watchful for, the clinical signs of infection. Seek immediate advice from your veterinarian for a sick horse and see your Doctor.

Prevention

Good hygiene practices are the best defence against infection. Suggestions include:

  • Always wash hands with soap and water after handling horses. Dry hands thoroughly.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Clean used equipment after handling each horse.
  • Avoid contact with a sick horse. Keep it isolated from other horses and seek immediate advice from your veterinarian.
  • Wear protective equipment such as goggles and gloves if you must come in contact with a sick horse. Wear long sleeves and long trousers.
  • Avoid contact with secretions (including blood, urine, saliva or nasal secretions) even when the horse is dead – the virus may still be active.
  • Wash and dry the contaminated area thoroughly with soap and water if you come in contact with secretions. See your Doctor.
  • Veterinarians (or other workers) who must handle a sick horse should wear full protective gear including face shield, respirator mask, non-permeable overalls, gloves and boots. Do not place water or feed troughs for horses under trees or in other areas where bats may roost.

 

DISCLAIMER: This information is an educational aid only. It is not intended to replace medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, pharmacist, nurse or naturopath before following any medical regimen to see whether it is safe and effective for you.