Hendra Virus: It’s Evolving

Fruit Bats and Hendra

The fruit bat, Hendra virus’ natural host.
Picture: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Will deadly Hendra virus become our next pandemic? With the way the virus is evolving it cannot be ruled out. History shows us that about 70% of pandemics originate in animals.

The Spanish flu that decimated the world at the end of World War I originated in pigs in a Spanish village. In its first go round in 1917 it was relatively mild. But the next bout in 1918-19 killed more people than had died during the entire war. And anyone who has made the most cursory study of WWI knows that it was absolute and utter carnage. On a scale to take the breath away. Unimaginable! And the Spanish Flu was worse!

Like every other horse owner, I don’t need any more expenses this year. Poor seasons, poor markets take a toll on all of us. But now that live Hendra virus has been found in dead fruit bats in Adelaide, I know that it is time– time to take a look at the big picture – time to vaccinate.

The fruit bat, or Flying Fox, Hendra virus’ natural host, ranges all over Australia, except for desert areas. All our horses are in danger, and by deduction, us and our dogs.

Lets take a brief overview: (more info here)

First found in 1994 in the racing stables of Vic Rail, where it killed him and 14 of his horses. Since then there have been several outbreaks:

In 1995 the virus took the life of a Mackay farmer and in 2008 and 2009 two Qld vets.

Between 1994 and 2010 there were 14 clusters of Hendra virus.

In 2011 in Qld and NSW there were 18 outbreaks with 24 cases in horses and 1 dog. 2011 also chalked up another sinister first. The first case of Hendra in Chinchilla blowing the myth that Hendra virus would not come west of the divide and that our inland horses are safe. No horse is safe!

Now in 2013, the horrifying thing is not only that there have so far been 9 outbreaks in horses ranging from the North coast and tableland of Qld to Kempsey and Macksville in NSW, including another dreadful first, NSW’s first dog, but the virus has changed its clinical signs. Where once the signs were:

  • High temperature

  • Neurological

  • Respiratory

    The latest signs have included:

  • No rise in temperature

  • Founder or shifting lameness of the feet

  • Colic

    This means that none of us will know if our horses have contracted this deadly virus until it is too late. Over 50% of humans catching the virus have died.

    I cannot believe that any of us would put a value of less than $100 (the price of the vaccine at our local vet clinic) on our children, ourselves, our vets, horses and dogs.

    Please, take this warning from history and vaccinate your horses. The potential of this virus is too horrifying to contemplate.

Vaccination: A Historical View

To vaccinate or not? This has been in the forefront of the news this week, with campaigns urging parents to vaccinate; and proclamations issued about child care centres and unvaccinated children.

To those of my parents’ generation, it would be unthinkable to have this debate. They all knew people who had tragically lost four, five, even all nine of their children, often within days of each other. They knew exactly what to do when each new vaccine came along.

In my own family history, an ancestor lost her husband, son and daughter from diphtheria. They all died within the space of two days. This happened in 1896.

As a farmer, I follow general animal husbandry practice to routinely vaccinate my livestock so as not to lose them from dreadful diseases such as tetanus, Black disease, blackleg and pulpy kidney. A simple vaccine, two injections given four to six weeks apart, prevents the early death of otherwise healthy young animals.

We do our best not to lose our animals from preventable disease.

How much worse if it is our children?

The anti-vaccination lobby can present frightening scenarios to parents. Unfortunately, they only reveal a very small part of the picture. They seem to have forgotten what it was that drove scientists like Pasteur and Jenner to produce vaccines: Human suffering and death!

For various reasons, lately, some parents have not been vaccinating their children. The only reason they have gotten away with it if they have! is because most people, since vaccines have become available, do vaccinate their children.

If you are considering not vaccinating because of a very natural fear for the safety of your child, I would say this:

  • You are making this decision on behalf of another human being.

  • It could literally mean his/her life or death.

  • You must be aware of the consequences: i.e. Are you prepared to play Russian Roulette with the life of your child?

Please, read the research. Don’t be put off by conspiracy theory claims. There are legitimate studies available through medical journals such as The Lancet. Weigh up the risks of vaccination and compare them to the risks of a fatal disease like diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus or smallpox.

Remember, the only reason they are now rare is because of rigorous vaccination programs. And, sadly, whooping cough is making a big comeback. If it can do it, so can others.

Let’s do a spot-check on Diphtheria, one of the worst killers of children:

  • An acute infectious bacterial disease usually affecting children under ten.

  • Primary lesion is in upper respiratory tract where the bacteria produce a toxin.

  • General symptoms are sore throat, fever, fatigue.

  • If it affects the larynx, the child may die of suffocation without a tracheotomy.

  • Worst case scenario: toxins cause heart failure and paralysis leading to death.

Before the 1940s this frightful disease was on top of every parent’s anxiety list. But, hey, the good news is: they found a vaccine.

Can anybody seriously tell me they would contemplate this risk for their child? If they didn’t have to?

Here are some stats from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: In 1940-44 the average annual death rate from Diphtheria in England and Wales was 1,830, dramatically reducing with immunisation, until in 1969 the figure was zero. This adds up to many thousands of families not having to grieve the loss of a child; many thousands of children who grew up to be adults and not statistics. Maybe you were one of them …

Finally, if you are still undecided, I suggest you visit any old cemetery (1880 – 1920 should do the trick) and check out the ages and heart-wrenching inscriptions on the headstones. And/or go to the death and funeral notices in the digitised old newspapers in Trove. 1896 perhaps?

You will then be able to make an informed decision.