Hendra Virus Protection Adopted by Equine Veterinarians

Protective equipment use and disease awareness likely reduced human infections during recent outbreaks.

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A marked increase in the incidence of hendra virus cases (termed "spillover events") in horses over the last 18 months has again brought this disease to prominence in Australia.

The virus was first recognized in 1994 following the death of a popular horse trainer and 20 horses in Hendra, a suburb of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. A member of the Paramyxoviridae, hendra virus has been categorized in the henipah virus genus due to its similarity to nipah virus, another lethal, bat-borne zoonotic agent.

Between the 1994 outbreak and June 2011, 14 hendra virus spillover events had been confirmed that resulted in seven human infections (four fatal, including two veterinarians). The publicity following these events resulted in widespread testing of suspect or ill horses and more stringent use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Since June 2011, at least 25 outbreaks have occurred, nearly double the total number of cases prior to then. A welcome difference in the recent spate of hendra cases is that no human infections have resulted from personnel handling or treating infected horses. Extensive testing of in-contact humans by health authorities is routine following every confirmed equine hendra case. Both heightened awareness of veterinarians and horse owners, together with a greater acceptance of PPE practices are considered to be largely responsible for the lack of human infections during the recent cases.

Equipment now in use by eastern Australian equine practitioners includes: disposable splashproof overalls, disposable respirators (N95 rated), safety eyewear or full-face shield, rubber boots or disposable shoe covers, and disposable gloves (often used in duplicate or triplicate). Pre-packaged PPE kits are now widely available. Following intensive lobbying by veterinary associations, costs for these items and other biohazard equipment are subsidized for Queensland practitioners dealing with suspect cases

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