Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Vets face deadly safety dilemma as Hendra virus horse deaths reach 6 in 2 weeks

As then Hendra Virus alert increases, Equine Vets in Queensland and Northern New South Wales are facing a terrible dilemma of whether to treat sick horses as the number of Hendra virus cases grows rapidly.  Highlighting the danger, a Biosecurity Queensland Vet in being monitored in Hospital following a needle stick injury.  This is the second needle stick injury I've heard of associated with a Hendra Virus case, the first being during the Redlands outbreak in 2009 when a government vet was hospitalised after pricking herself with a needle while Euthanasing a horse.

Hendra virus exposure risk exacerbated by essential protective equipment

Needle stick injuries in vets are actually very rare: I think I've only pricked myself a handful of times in 10 years, and most of those were with sterile needles which posed no health risk.  The high frequency we are seeing with these Hendra virus cases is no accident: its a direct result of the high pressure situation and the cumbersome protective equipment required when handling suspect Hendra cases.  The rise of Hendra is resulting in calls for vets to wear protective equipment such as overalls, masks, gloves and even respirators when dealing with any suspect Hendra case (which can be just about in sick horse, until proven otherwise).  Your dexterity, speed and visibility are seriously impaired when "safely protected" by all this equipment.  The horse is also unimpressed with the blue-clad alien figure approaching them, so direct horse related injury risk is also greatly reduced.  The overall risk of approaching and treating a horse once Hendra virus is taken into account is thus greatly increased.

Forgoing safety equipment isn't smart either: a splash of blood or saliva into your eye or nose (or transferred from your own hands) just happens too easily not to wear gloves and a mask and easily cleaned or removed clothing, but it adds to an already high pressure situation wearing so much restrictive equipment.

No surprise then that many vets are refusing to see sick horses during the current Hendra virus scare.  When faced with the prospect of a life threatening infection as part of your daily work, equine house calls (which are already risky activities compared with small animal practice) become much less appealing.  I know myself how suddenly your attitude to your work changes when you realise, 10 minutes into handling a sick horse, that it could actually be Hendra Virus, and you anxiously wait on the blood test results to reveal whether you are at risk of serious illness.  Fortunately I never have been, and increased education among vets as we learn more about the disease makes this situation less common, but I bet there are plenty of vets not getting much sleep over the next few days, as the first signs of Hendra Virus can be so subtle that really any sick horse you handle could have the infection.

Biosecurity workers deal with the hendra outbreak

Essential protective equipment makes an already difficult job more stressful: Biosecurity workers deal with the hendra outbreak at Beaudesert in Queensland in late June. A case of the disease is confirmed in NSW a few days later. ABC News (Anne O'Keeffe)

Dallas McMillan

Cairns Vet Clinic

Follow me on twitter @cairnsvet


Read more about the sixth Hendra Virus case at Sydney Morning Herald



Hendra claims sixth horse near Brisbane

Petrina Berry & Tracey Ferrier

Tests have confirmed a horse that died near Brisbane on Monday is the sixth victim in a worrying escalation of the Hendra virus.

The horse fell ill and died at Park Ridge, south of Brisbane, on Monday night, not far from where other Hendra cases have been confirmed.

Initial tests produced conflicting results.

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But results from further tests, returned late on Tuesday, confirmed the animal had Hendra virus.

The horse's owner and a vet who had contact with the animal have joined the list of people waiting to learn if they've contracted the potentially deadly virus.

They now number 17 in Queensland and nine in NSW.

Queensland's chief veterinary officer Rick Symons said there was only one horse on the Park Ridge property, which was now under quarantine.

"However there are horses on neighbouring properties so we are currently addressing the need to quarantine properties in the immediate area," he said.

Since June 20, six horses have died or have been put down after contracting Hendra - five in southern Queensland and one in northern NSW.

Park Ridge is about 70km from Mt Alford and 50km from Kerry, where other Hendra cases have been confirmed.

A total of six properties are now under quarantine - five in southern Queensland, including the Park Ridge site, and one at Wollongbar, in northern NSW.

Queensland's chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young said 17 people in the state were now undergoing tests for Hendra.

She revealed one is a Biosecurity Queensland vet who suffered a needle stick injury on the weekend, while responding to Hendra cases at Mt Alford in the state's south.

The vet, who was wearing double gloves and following procedure, was being closely monitored in hospital, but was considered to be at low risk, Dr Young said.

Dr Symons said the recent cases in Queensland and NSW pointed to an increased Hendra risk for horses but the cause was a mystery.

Read the rest of this Hendra Virus in Horses and Humans article at Sydney Morning Herald

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