Fears of future Hendra outbreaks: The Australian Veterinary Association now recommends that all horses in Australia are vaccinated against the Hendra virus.
Fears of future Hendra outbreaks: The Australian Veterinary Association now recommends that all horses in Australia are vaccinated against the Hendra virus.

Horse club plays ‘Russian roulette’ with deadly virus

THE nation's peak professional body for horse veterinarians has slammed a move by one association to conduct more rides for horses which have not been vaccinated against Hendra virus.

The Queensland Endurance Riders Association - which has a Northern Rivers zone and regularly runs events in Northern NSW - recently held its annual general meeting, with voting on motions discussed to close on January 29.

One of the motions is for open rides to take precedence over closed rides in scheduling the 2020 calendar.

QERA president, Dick Collyer, said "like every other equine activity", the association allows horses which are not Hendra vaccinated to participate.

"The rational for this is that unrestricted rides allow all our members to enter their horses, whereas restricted rides do not," he said.

Mr Collyer said irrespective of vaccination status, all rides were run with biosecurity protocols, risk management plans and animal welfare rules.

"Hendra virus is an extremely rare disease, it has never occurred at an equine event, and the humans who have caught the disease did so before we had extensive knowledge of it," he said.

"We now know that it is a very difficult disease to catch, unless they are doing major invasive procedures on a heavily infected horse and not wearing appropriate personal protective equipment."

NSW Health has reported that all confirmed human cases to date followed high level exposure to body fluids of an infected horse, such as doing autopsies on horses without wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, or being extensively sprayed with respiratory secretions.

The spread of Hendra virus between horses is possible whenever horses have close contact with body fluids from an infected horse.

But Dr Sam Nugent, the president of Equine Veterinarians Australia, a special interest group of the Australian Veterinary Association, has slammed QERA's stance in a scathing letter to the association.

He wrote that passing such a motion would be a "backwards step" that could have "catastrophic consequences".

"We would also like to convey our loss of confidence in AERA and your organisation in your failure to implement best practice … with regard to biosecurity, workplace health and safety, and animal welfare in conducting endurance rides in Hendra endemic areas," Dr Nugent wrote.

"EVA believes that AERA continues to play Russian roulette with Hendra virus.

"Government authorities have endorsed the Hendra vaccine as effective, and any claims of significant adverse health reactions, adverse effects on performance and lack of efficacy of the Hendra vaccine are not substantiated by scientific evidence."

Dr Nugent said many experienced vets had withdrawn their services to AERA.

The result has seen the association enlist "inexperienced, Hendra ambivalent, and unregistered overseas veterinarians", according to EVA.

"In a Hendra virus endemic area, inviting unvaccinated horses to compete in a multiple day equine event, with commingling of horses from diverse origins, their handlers and the public, is essentially playing Russian roulette with a deadly virus," Dr Nugent wrote.

"The number of chambers in the revolver may be numerous, but at some stage the live shell may end up in the firing chamber, with catastrophic consequences.

"The risk to the public, horses and staff cannot be overstated.

"Hendra virus infection is a fatal disease to humans and horses."

 

Hendra background

The CSIRO reports the first outbreak of the Hendra virus was discovered in Queensland in September 1994.

The vaccine Equivac HEV launched in November 2012.

Scientists confirm horses are immune to 'a lethal exposure of the Hendra virus six months post vaccination', according to the CSIRO.

The Australian Veterinary Association now recommends that all horses in Australia are vaccinated against the Hendra virus.