The recent Hendra virus outbreaks in Beenleigh and Murwillumbah during June serve as a timely reminder of the ever-present risk of this deadly virus. In this special Q&A, Southeast Queensland veterinarian Rod Howard explains what led his practice to make Hendra vaccination a requirement for all his equine clients.
Why did you decide to make Hendra vaccination a requirement for your equine clients?
All the science to date shows that the Hendra vaccine is extremely effective in preventing Hendra infection in horses, so it allows safe interaction between people and horses. The motivation for making vaccination a requirement was my personal safety and the safety of my staff. Southeast Queensland has had a large number of Hendra outbreaks. The entire region has many horses on small acreage in close contact with flying foxes or fruit bats. This makes Southeast Queensland a very high-risk area to practice. Horses can shed the virus for at least 5 days prior to becoming ill, so the only way to protect yourself is to always wear personal protective equipment for every horse visit, stop treating horses altogether, or only see vaccinated horses. For me, it was a simple decision: I stopped attending unvaccinated horses in September 2013.
What advice did you give to your clients?
The lead-in was to give my horse owner clients plenty of notice that the policy was coming. This allowed clients who valued their safety and mine to have horses vaccinated so that they could continue to be serviced by our practice. Out of all my regular clients, only one did not accept our new policy. This was a bit surprising considering that this client had been through having a sick horse needing a Hendra exclusion test and the uncertainty and stress that this caused until the negative result came back. Since the new policy, we have had to refuse to attend some sick unvaccinated horses, but I certainly don't regret the decision. We have worked hard to communicate with our clients all new information that comes to hand regarding Hendra vaccine, as well as Hendra disease and transmission.
What benefits have you seen since making Hendra vaccination a requirement?
The benefits are all in reduced stress and uncertainty about potential safety risks when you're attending a horse call. I have not attended a confirmed Hendra-positive horse but I have had to request Hendra exclusion testing on quite a few horses. Some of these horses had all the symptoms we commonly associate with Hendra virus but luckily turned out to be negative. Even when you know you have done all you can to protect yourself, there is still the stress of dealing with the potential risk. And I always used to worry about my clients, because most owners don’t take proper precautions when dealing with unvaccinated horses and especially sick unvaccinated horses. My family and staff are much happier now that I only attend vaccinated horses.
Have your clients reported any benefits from your new policy?
Once they have their horses vaccinated, many owners have said that they did not realise how much stress the threat of Hendra had subconsciously given them. The interactions with their horses have become much more relaxed and normal again.
What's your final message to horse owners about Hendra vaccination?
I believe that most horse owners want to do what is best for their own health and that of their horses. With a bit of encouragement and education, they can see the benefits of vaccinating their horses. Vets need to lead the way by showing that they take Hendra virus seriously.
Don't risk Hendra virus. Vaccinate before it's too late. Ask your vet about the Hendra vaccine today.