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Hendra survivor tells of crippling impact of killer disease

As we approach the peak season for Hendra virus infections, it’s a timely reminder that this deadly virus not only kills horses but also humans. Brisbane vet nurse Natalie Beohm is lucky to be alive after contracting the virus in 2008 in an outbreak that claimed the life of her vet colleague and friend, Ben Cunneen. “I wasn't supposed to come out of hospital,” she said. Hendra virus isn’t curable, so Natalie's only hope was that she would stay alive long enough for her immune system to begin to fight the virus. Kept in an isolation ward for weeks, her prognosis was grave. At one point, the hospital's infectious diseases specialist told Natalie's family “we just have to wait and hope” because he did not know what else he could do. “You don’t contract this virus and then just get over it. I'm left with many underlying health problems, and no one knows what the virus might do to my body in the future," explained Natalie.

Plagued by lingering symptoms

Even now, 6 years after her brush with death, Natalie still struggles with the aftermath of this devastating disease. She is plagued by lingering symptoms including constant fatigue, pain, headaches, dizziness and memory problems. “I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy. It was the sickest I've ever felt. And not knowing if I was going home, that was the scariest bit." But she appreciates how lucky she is to recover from one of the world’s most dangerous diseases. Hendra virus in humans has an alarming death rate. Of the 7 people who have so far contracted the virus, only 3 are alive today.

Hendra virus vaccine is vital

Since almost losing her life to the virus, Natalie has become a passionate supporter of  vaccination. "I don't think people realise how lucky they are now," she said about the availability of the Equivac® HeV vaccine against Hendra virus. "After being through what I've been through, I'd be pushing to have every horse done … It makes me sad that [the other victims] had to die for people to take Hendra seriously and do something about it. ” Natalie's war against the Hendra virus has come at a cost though, and despite her strength and perseverance, even she has her limits. “If I had to go through it again, I couldn't. I don’t have the strength to fight it like last time. I don’t want to go through having to learn to walk and talk again. That’s if I even survived a relapse. I think I would just roll over and die.”

Uncertainty about the future

With so much about the virus still unknown, Natalie is understandably uncertain about her future health. She worries about the possibility of relapse, given that one of the deaths from Hendra virus occurred in a Queensland farmer who recovered but relapsed and died 12 months later. “I look fine on the outside, but I am broken on the inside. This is an ongoing thing … It's affected my brain and nervous system, so how can you fix that?" Despite everything she's been through, Natalie's love of horses is unaffected. She continues to ride when she can, but admits that she is easily exhausted. “It’s the only thing in my life now that I can control. People say: ‘How can you ride?’ But horses are what have got me through this. It’s like surfers who have been attacked by a shark. They end up back in the water because that’s what they love and what heals them,” she explained.

Hendra strikes again with a new outbreak confirmed

In March 2014, an unvaccinated horse from Bundaberg in Queensland was diagnosed with Hendra virus and had to be put down. The outbreak prompted Biosecurity Queensland to urge horse owners to contact their vets, because vaccination is the single most effective way of reducing the risk of Hendra virus infection. “I don’t understand why people are questioning whether to vaccinate their horses. The vaccine has been specifically developed to protect people, horses and the industry. The closest ‘relative’ of the Hendra virus is the Nipah virus, which has killed hundreds of pigs and humans. That's why I think it's so important to vaccinate,” concluded Natalie.