The History of Hendra Virus and how the Queensland Government have
managed the risks since it was first discovered in 1994
17 years on - What has changed?
Latest News
Site Published:  16th April 2010
Page added:    22nd August 2011
Last Updated: 16th July 2014
Many are asking why are we seeing so many outbreaks this year compared to previous years?  Scientists have implied it could be related to the wide spread flooding in January/February this year, and destruction of natural food source as a result of cyclone Yasi.  I posted an update with photos in January of the destruction to just one permanent flying fox camp site which as at 1st August is still vacated.  Gayndah residents have been in the news with their plight to rid the town of a colony in excess of 200,000 bats that moved in last spring.  Brett Walsh from Barcaldine has also been in the media in recent weeks about the 50,000 bats moved into his back yard, bats have definitely been displaced and moved into areas where they have previously not been, no arguments on that one.

However, if cyclone Yasi and widespread flooding were to blame then why were we not seeing cases long before June/July?  Perhaps because people have been led to believe that there is a 'Hendra Season' which stems from the DPI's earlier hypothesis that the spillover events were linked to the bat birthing season, and also the history on the 'recorded' cases being  mainly in Winter/Spring.   If flooding and cyclone are to blame why have there not been increased number of cases in previous years when cyclones have crossed the coast and regions inundated?  If the availability of food sources were being influenced by rains, then surely the years of drought would have caused equally high numbers of outbreaks as the flying foxes would have been equally nutrition stressed.   During 1993 and 1994 Queensland endured the worst drought on record with some parts of the state having been in drought for 4 years.  More on the weather patterns as I go on.

I believe it is more simple than weather and will outline the history of the cases recorded from the first to the current ones to show why. 

September 1994 news headlines broke of the mystery illness of horses in Vic Rail's racing stables at Hendra.  A mare called Drama Series was brought into the stables from a paddock at Cannon Hill, racing was halted, Vic Rail was hospitalised and later died, his stable hand Ray Unwin was very ill.  A new virus never before seen in the world had been discovered, it was initially called equine morbillivirus, later renamed Hendra after the suburb.  A Novel Morbillivirus Pneumonia of Horses and its Transmission to Humans  Twenty horses were recorded as having died, 13 died or were euthanased on humane grounds, seven horses that survived and or developed antibodies were later destroyed, without any post mortem examination to learn vital clues about this new killer virus.

How well did the Queensland Department of Primary Industries deal with this emergency situation?  A lot of criticism was aimed squarely at them at the time, given this was the first time this deadly virus had been seen anywhere in the world one might forgive the Government for being unprepared and hope that valuable lessons were learnt.  The government commissioned a private equine veterinarian to investigate and report on the outbreak, Dr Dick Wright's report was never released publicly although it was discussed a year after the outbreak on the ABC Program Background Briefing (read the transcript of that interview) .

        "Now we have uncovered a report that was commissioned by the Queensland government during the disease outbreak
        last year that is highly critical of the way State authorities handled things at Vic Rail's stables. If they got it wrong,
        the question is, will they get it right this time?
Helen Thomas updates her report on the outbreak at Victory Lodge.

Indeed, would they get it right this time?  What did they learn from that highly critical report?  Apparently not a lot, but the old saying never hold an inquiry unless you know the outcome springs to mind.   The report contained vital clinical information of how the virus presented in the various horses, information that should have been published for all veterinarians, horse owners  and interested parties to read.  

        "Affected horses were initially depressed but aware, pyrexic, and usually inappetant.  Sick horses were commonly        
        described as being ataxic or weak, reluctant to move, held their head and neck low, and several animals were seen
        to "head press" as the course of the disease progressed.  It was not possible, in most circumstances, to undertake an
        adequate neurological
examination but subsequent post mortem evaluation suggested that neurological manifestation were
        related to organ dysfunction (hypoxaemia) and metabolic disturbances (azotaemia) rather than infection of the central
        nervous system tissue.  However, 2 horses Quegent and Minders Girl, demonstrated evidence of neurological disease....  
        Read more on the 1994 clinical presentation here

October 1995 just days before the second scare with this killer virus, the death of Mark Preston, the Coronial Inquest into Vic Rail's death was called off.  Health Minister Peter Beattie confirmed Mr Preston had tested positive to the same equine morbillivirus genus which was detected in Mr Rail.  No Inquest was ever held into the death of Vic Rail.

Mark Preston had assisted his wife and veterinarian Dr Margaret Preston with the autopsies of two of her horses in August the year before, a month before the outbreak at Vic Rail's stables.  From samples sent to a private laboratory, the mare Zamian's death was put down as probable avocado poisoning, the pathologists report giving "conclusive confirmation" that Radjhi (colt) died of snake bite.

About 10 days after the second horse death Mark was admitted to hospital with what was thought to be meningitis.  The following month Dr Margaret Preston alerted authorities of the death of her two horses by contacting the Vic Rail Hotline, the DPI ignored her.  At the time of Mark's death his father John Preston spoke to the media several times telling of his sons failing health since he had assisted with the autopsies on those horses and how he feared he had contracted the 'Rail' virus.   Thirteen months later Mark was dead and tests confirmed he had become the second victim of this lethal virus, stored samples from the mare were eventually tested and confirmed she had died from morbillivirus. 

November 1995, Dr Peter Reid the veterinarian at the coal face of the first known outbreak at Vic Rail's publicly slammed the Queensland DPI over their handling of the outbreak describing their approach to conducting the autopsies in the front yard as "inappropriate and potentially catastrophic" and the quarantine measures as a "Claytons Quarantine".  Allowing the Racing Minister Bob Gibbs and his staff to walk on and off the site and a security guard allowed a 5 year old girl Lititia Johnston to pat a quarantined horse.  Letitia died a few days later with the official cause of death "bacterial meningitis".      Her mother spoke to the media claiming authorities had refused to test her daughter for the virus, officials claiming there was no blood left to test. 

December 1995, John Preston called for an inquest into his son's death, the Coroner Gary Casey was quick to reply two days later stating there was no need for an inquest.  In February 1996, again John called for a full public inquiry into Mark's death, questioning the two sets of symptoms in the months preceding his death, respiratory problems and headaches.  He also raised the issue of why no investigation was done surrounding the fact his son had worked at a piggery in the months before his death.  John Preston wrote a detailed statement about what happened to Mark and put it in a safe place.  Mark's death thirteen months after being exposed assisting with two autopsies on the horses was assumed to have been recrudescence of the virus, but was it?  Or was he exposed by another outbreak left undetected and not investigated?  Authorities again were quick to get this deadly virus out of the media.  No inquest was ever held into the death of Mark Preston.

April 1997, Another new bat borne virus was detected at Menangle near Sydney in a 2600 sow piggery, with 90% of the pigs of all ages at the piggery developing anti-bodies to MeV, along with two of the 250 workers at the piggery falling sick with influenza like symptoms and going on to sero-convert.  Studies and results only recently published show a high prevalance of MeV in black and grey headed flying foxes in  Australia.

Between 1994 and 1999 there were no further Hendra horse cases 'recorded' until January 1999 when a single horse was confirmed infected with the virus in Townsville.  In June Background Briefing covered the story of the Nipah Virus being discovered in Malaysia, where 100 people became infected and nearly a million pigs were culled (read transcript here).  The similarity between the two virus' and their recent discovery rang alarm bells for some, yet in the five years since Rail's death little more than 2 million dollars had been spent on research into the virus.  (A video on the Nipah virus outbreak and how it was handled has been published earlier on this page "When Governments Get it Wrong")

     Ray Murrihey, Chairman of Stewards with the New South Wales Thoroughbred Board, says the racing industry
     learned little or nothing from the Hendra outbreak. And he should know: at the time he was Chief Steward in Queensland.

     Ray Murrihey: My disappointment was that whilst at the time there was a lot of alarm as to what could have
     happened in the industry, as soon as racing got back to normal that was really the end of the matter, and to speak
     to people out there in the industry at large Helen, they chose to believe it either didn't happen or that there was
     never a virus, that the finding was wrong in the first place. And I'm talking there, and I think the figures I might
     have quoted would be something in the order of about 90% of people didn't take it as seriously as they should have,
     and we didn't really learn anything from it. All we did was resume normal duties and didn't go forward with any
     plan for the future. 

As discussed in that interview there were other people that were sick after the outbreak at Rail's stable, there are some that have never been mentioned, like the feed merchant that was supplying feed to the stable whilst under quarantine, hospitalised for months took years to recover.  The veterinarian that was exposed treating the two horses that left Vic's stables and went to Kenilworth, died the following year, one of the stud owners involved in treating those horses also suffered long term health problems. 

During 1998 - 2001 was a La Niña, tropical cyclones such as Thelma in Dec 1998, Rona in Feb 1999, Vance in Mar 1999, Steve in Feb and Mar 2000, Sam in Dec 2000 and Abigail in Feb 2001 all causing significant flooding in their wake. Substantial crop and stock losses were caused by widespread flooding in NSW and Queensland during July to September 1998 (Figure 8). Some regions had as many as four separate flooding incidents during these three months. There were also numerous hailstorms during this La Niña, including the notorious Sydney hailstorm in April 1999, which is one of Australia’s most costly natural disasters in monetary terms.   From BOM 

Despite this La Niña only one case of Hendra was recorded (1999), Hendra virus apparently disappeared again for another 5 years until the next recorded case at Gordonvale in
October 2004, when a young veterinarian attended a horse that was critically ill and died.  Unaware of the risks of Hendra virus she conducted a post mortem examination and was heavily exposed to body fluids, Hendra virus was not suspected until the vet fell ill with flu like symptoms and was tested positive, becoming the fourth known human infection and second known survivor. 

December 2004 - The fifth recorded case in a single horse in Townsville, barely a blip in the media across the state.

Is it because there is a higher prevelance of Hendra virus in the bat populations, causing this sudden extraordinary rise in the number of spillover events?

Perhaps not!  Although the Queensland Chief Veterinary Officer stated in the Australian on the 6th July 2011 as the fourth outbreak in  less than 3 weeks was announced

     He said there was the potential for more cases amid a threefold rise in the prevalence of the virus in samples taken
     from the local flying fox colony. About 30 per cent of the samples tested positive, compared with about 10 per cent
     in previous outbreaks.  "We've detected Hendra virus at a larger level than we would expect," Dr Symons said.

It should also be noted that the practice of sampling colonies thought involved in an outbreak was only implemented in 2009 after forcing the Department to implement one of Perkins recommendations from the 2006 review so, quoting this wild finding of a three fold increase was based on nothing more than 3 previous outbreaks.   The Department's own website tells of early surveilance work indicating that between 20 and 60% of the bat population carries anti-bodies to the virus. 

On the program Background Briefing 1999 - Hume Field states : Certainly we've surveyed pretty extensively in Eastern Australia and more recently we've done some surveillance in Western Australia as well. And what we're seeing is a fairly widespread occurrence of antibodies to Hendra Virus. It varies a little bit with species and with location, but in the vicinity of 40% of animals have antibodies to Hendra Virus. What that means is that these animals have at some stage in their past been infected with the virus. It's probable that they're the sole host.

June 2006 - The first recorded case at Peachester.  Dr Rebekka Day was highly critical of the DPI's response, forcing the Minister Tim Mulherin to launch an independent investigation into the Departments handling.  This incident has been well covered on this website, on pages "History Repeats"  and "Be Alert - Not Alarmed".  Not only did this veterinarian diagnose a live case of Hendra despite the veterinary guidelines being completely inadequate and misleading, as a result of the independent investigation, the vet guidelines were tightened up further, making it even more difficult for vets to recognise a case or get the DPI to respond when clinical symptoms did not meet the criteria.  

Prior to 2006 the departments actions may have been seen as sheer incompetence coupled with poor decision making, but the actions in 2006 surely took this to a new level of culpability?

October 2006
- Perhaps because of the media attention on the 13th October surrounding the Peachester case, Overload Delays Virus Alert, the first ever recorded case of Hendra was detected just over the border in Murwillumbah, NSW.  Again a single horse death, with very little media attention.

June 2007 - A different veterinarian diagnosed a second case at Peachester, on an adjoining property to the case just 12 months previous.  None of the neighbours, nor the local vet were advised of this alarming fact that Hendra had struck again.

July 2007 - The same veterinarian that diagnosed the 1999 case at Trinity Beach, detected another single case at Clifton Beach in a horse that died on July 18th.  The quarantine on this property was lifted the same day as the widespread lockdown of the horse industry after EI was discovered to have escaped Eastern Creek and run rampant in the horse population.   Familiar with this virus, the same vet detected the more recent North Qld case at Kuranda in July this year (2011).

July 2008 - The catastrophic outbreak at Redlands which saw veterinarian Dr Ben Cunneen lose his life, vet nurse Natalie Boehm hospitalised and still to this day suffering enormous health issues.  'I just turned 24, it felt like 50': the horror of Hendra July 2011    At least 8 horses died including one which survived the virus (Tamworth) and was destroyed under National Policy.   A second outbreak the same month in Proserpine saw one owner lose 4 horses, one a gelding called Thomas who did not exhibit any clinical symptoms of being ill sero-converted and was destroyed under National Policy.  Two of the horses in the Vic Rail  outbreak (Huamino and Sir Ambition) were also never sick but sero-converted.

Much controversy surrounded the Redlands outbreak and I will not go into that at this point, but suffice to say despite the Health Minister Steven Robinson stating on ABC Radio that there would be a Coronial inquest into Ben Cunneen's death, the Coroner Michael Barnes stated no Coronial Inquest was necessary as he was informed that the relevant departments were investigating the handling of the outbreak.   Despite being a workplace related death, no coronial inquest has ever been held.

At the time of the Redlands outbreak there was widespread talk of the virus having mutated and now causing neurological symptoms in horses.  The veterinary guidelines were so inadequate that immediate and substantial changes were made which included ALL the previously known symptoms, however they still left misleading criteria such as the temperature over 40 and portrayed it as either respiratory or neurological when this was absolutely wrong.   This was acknowledged by the authorities in early 2009 and changes to the guidelines were made, but not published immediately.

Later in 2009 the paper Initial Experimental characterisation of HeV (Redlands Bay 2008) infection in horses - Author Dr D Middleton CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory.    Clearly documented that the guidelines were inadequate

      It is noteworthy that none of the three animals in this study fulfilled the currently available case definition for even
      a “possible” case of HeV in horses. In particular, more conservative estimates on elevated temperature and
      heart rate should be advised as part of an early warning strategy. Current emphasis on later, nigh terminal, clinical
      signs to compose the case definition is insufficient to prevent future exposure of veterinarians or animal owners.

The new guidelines were promptly published, however no public announcement of such vital changes.  These changes now meant more suspect cases were likely to get through the scrutiny of fitting the criteria to allow for testing.

The trial paper also documented the testing methods used during the trial for HeV genome by Taqman PCR.  Two Taqman assays were used.  The first assay (P-gene) was designed by staff from Queensland Health Scientific Services and is regularly used for routine HeV diagnosis.  The second (N-gene) Taqman assay was designed by CSIRO AAHL staff for Henipah virus detection and is also used for routine HeV diagnosis.  The trial showed that the second assay was more sensitive to genome and as a result the routine assay used in Queensland was updated in 2009 to the more sensitive test. 

August 2009 - too little too late, the next deadly outbreak was detected at a horse stud at Cawarral (near Rockhampton).  This time the actions of Queensland Health were brought to the forefront, with stud owner and workers very vocal in the media.  Veterinarian Dr Alister Rogers became infected and died from the virus.  What was not made public and highlights the possibility of there having been other human deaths never detected was the fact that Alister was only exposed to the first horse that died at the property, the second and third horses were seen by vets from another clinic.  By the time the third horse was critically ill and not responding to medication the stud manager Deb Brown contacted Alister to discuss the case, it was then that Hendra virus was suspected and the authorities alerted.   Had the second and third horses not contracted the virus, Alister would likely still have lost his life, but would Hendra have ever been suspected or detected?  Probably not.  Despite another workplace related death, no Coronial inquest was ever held.

September 2009 - With the news of Cawarral outbreak in the media, Dr Tim Annand was called to a sick horse on a Bowen property, Hendra virus was suspected and samples confirmed the horse had contracted the virus.  This then raised concerns over a horse that he had attended on the same property a month earlier, initially diagnosed as suspected lead poisoning.  Samples from a private lab were traced and later confirmed at AAHL that this horse had also died from HeV.

Despite wide spread concern and calls from all corners for the Government to fund a vaccine for horses, no such funding was forthcoming.   Alister Rogers widow and colleagues were left raising funds in the local community to help with research into finding a cure and vaccine.  A memorial trust fund was established at the Queensland Uni, funds were slow to come.

April 2010 - This website was published, exposing the Governments handling of this deadly virus, an online petition calling for the Government start putting desperately needed funding into all aspects of research that was needed.  The Queensland Horse Council took the initiative to start a Horse Vaccine Trust Fund to try and raise the $600,000 needed by AAHL to complete the horse vaccine trials.

May 2010 - The next outbreak was detected on the Sunshine Coast at Tewantin,  worst fears were brought home when it was revealed that the mother Rebecca Day and her daughter Mollie, owners of the confirmed positive horse were deemed to have had sufficient exposure to the sick horse to warrant highly experimental use of the monoclanal antibody treatment.  The Government were surely going to come under heavy fire if a child contracted this virus, or worse died. 

With Hendra now squarely in the public National arena, the Bligh Government held crisis talks with Federal counterparts and within 48 hours the $600,000 funding for the horse vaccine trials at AAHL was pledged.  Shortly after this a further $300,000 funding was forthcoming for the Queensland University to locally produce the monoclanal antibody treatment (for humans) to hold emergency stocks in Queensland.  Earlier this year a further $180,000 funding was announced as concerns raised the unknown shelf live of the treatment.  This treatment whilst shown highly successful in the laboratory trials (test tubes and in animal trials) is still highly experimental and only offered to people deemed at high risk of exposure and developing the disease. 

June 2011 - Now with unrestricted veterinary guidelines widely publicised, more sensitive testing being used, and a few other issues I shall not go into at this time, the first case for the year was announced on the 29th June, in rapid succession we saw multiple cases detected in Queensland.  Prior to 2011 there had only ever been one recorded case detected in any other state, in Northern NSW, over the next 9 weeks 17 separate outbreaks are detected, 8 of these in NSW.  Many of these would previously not have met the criteria under the strict Vet Guidelines to be considered even a suspect, much less a probable case.

Some vets are now calling for mandatory vaccination when the horse vaccine becomes available, the AVA are running an online survey of vets to see what support this would receive.  Whilst there is no doubt a vaccine would provide peace of mind for many horse owners living in what is considered 'risk areas', the reality is that no vaccine is ever the silver bullet and it is vitally important that all people living with, and working with animals become better educated to the risks of this and other potential zoonotic diseases.   Preventing infection in humans is achievable through proper hygiene and biosecurity measures.  Preventing infection in horses and other animals still remains an enormous challenge, with several of the cases this year reporting that there were NO bats in the vicinity and also no fruiting or flowing trees on the property or in the paddocks where the horses apparently became infected.

13th July - At all costs the Government have ignored this deadly issue for too long, now with a crisis in their face as the seventh case in less than 3 weeks was announced, crisis talks with the NSW State Government a joint Taskforce announced funding of $6 Million into research, $3 million from each state.  The fine print not noticed by many was that this funding is pledged over 3 years, in contrast to the $6 million that the Bligh Government are spending on installing free WiFi internet access on Brisbane inner city trains.

26th July - The crisis worsens with the announcement of Dusty the dog testing positive, widespread community anger and frustration about the bats.  The Premier Anna Bligh announces her Government will not experiment with lives!  They've had no problem doing just that for the past 17 years, but with the prospect of the true extent of this deadly virus finally coming to light further crisis talks held and the Gillard Government kicked in a further $6 Million funding into the research.   CSIRO also announced $6 Million dollars would be spent on research in the next year.

Widespread calls for the culling of bats, hysteria in the public and the Government making knee jerk policy decisions on the fly to appease voters.   One week the Premier is stating moving bats could cause further stress and increase the risks of Hendra outbreaks when they have NO scientific proof that moving them could cause more outbreaks.  Two weeks later Gayndah bats to get heave-ho , the following day Family gets nod to move Barcaldine bats.

The reality is the problem man has created by bringing native animals into close proximity to dense populations of people was destined to create problems.   Moving bats is only moving the problem into someone else's backyard.  The Government needs to stop making policy on the run, and bring to the table experts in the field to come up with workable solutions.  They keep saying there is 'no evidence' that the virus can go direct bat to human, based on screening of wildlife handlers, a very small percentage of the population.  Queensland Health guidelines have required a connection with a confirmed positive horse case before testing would be done on sick humans, to the extent they have refused to have tissue samples analysed at AAHL of Tania Benholz.

Funding now seems to be flowing but are they really addressing the problems?  Is the funding being directed in the right places?    Are the Government really taking Hendra virus seriously or just being seen to do something by throwing money at it?   Sadly by reports I am receiving from concerned people (horse owners and vets), little has changed yet. 
More to come on this soon.

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Between 1994 and 2010 just 14 recorded outbreaks
In just over 9 weeks from 20th June to 30th August 2011, 17 separate outbreaks involving 21 horse deaths
(9 in Queensland and 8 in NSW) with no known links between any of the cases
Table of all 'recorded' cases of Hendra Virus to date (June 2014)
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