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The Queensland Racing Integrity Commission (QRIC) has called on horse owners and trainers to be particularly aware of the threat of Hendra virus this year.

QRIC Veterinary Services and Animal Welfare Director Dr Martin Lenz said now is the time to get serious about vaccination against Hendra virus.

A global team of experts studying the complete interactions between climate, land use, flying fox ecology, Hendra virus dynamics and the concurrent risk to horses and humans have advised that winter 2020 poses a heightened risk of the virus.

“According to these experts, the climate and other factors preceding the Hendra virus outbreak clusters in the winters of 2011 and 2017 were similar to the predicted conditions this year,” Dr Lenz said.

“This time of the year is always a concern for Hendra virus infecting our equine population, but the experts believe this winter we must be even more vigilant, because drought and bushfires have placed added stresses on flying fox populations.”

The natural host for Hendra virus is the flying fox. The virus can spread from flying foxes to horses, horses to horses and, on occasion, from horses to people.

Since Hendra virus was identified in 1994, more than 100 horses have died during 62 recorded outbreaks.

These animals have either died as a direct result of their infection or have had to be euthanased across Queensland and New South Wales. The most recent outbreak of Hendra virus killed a horse in the Upper Hunter Valley in June 2019.

Seven people have been confirmed with Hendra virus infection following high levels of exposure to infected horses. Four of these people died, the most recent in 2009.

Dr Lenz is calling on racing industry participants to reduce the risk of Hendra infection with vaccination.

“If an unvaccinated horse becomes sick with another treatable illness, extensive and sometimes life-saving treatment may have to be delayed until Hendra virus is ruled out, posing a further risk to the animal’s health and welfare,” he said.

“A QRIC-funded world first study in 2017 concluded that the Hendra vaccination has no effect on horse racing performance, so there is no excuse to not vaccinate all racehorses.

“The equine vaccine effectively protects horses and therefore also all the people working with them. The virus is highly lethal in people and there is no human vaccine.”

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