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What is the Hendra Virus?

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  • Written By: Dee S.
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 22 August 2016
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The Hendra virus was originally discovered when a small group of horses and people in Australia developed an unusual neurological and respiratory condition. Only three people have been affected by Hendra virus disease, but two of those three people died. Researchers are currently looking into cures for this rare illness and until they discover an effective treatment, preventative measures should be taken.

Previously referred to as equine morbillivirus, the Hendra virus is believed to come from a type of bat called the flying fox. This bat species infected horses in Australia when the horse's food became contaminated by an infected bat’s urine, fecal matter, or bodily fluid. The infected horses, in turn, infected people when they secreted mucus, saliva, blood, or other fluids; people came in contact with these fluids through their mouths, noses, eyes, or open sores. Hendra virus is not believed to spread from one person to another person or from the flying fox bat to people.

Since it is an extremely rare disease, there only are few people who have been confirmed as infected by the Hendra virus. Those people who were infected were tested for the virus and typically had symptoms similar to the influenza virus. These symptoms included headaches, coughs, sore throats, fever, and lethargy. In at least one case, encephalitis occurred, causing the affected individual’s brain to become inflamed. When a sick horse infects a person, it can take anywhere from five days to three weeks for symptoms to present.

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Research is still underway to determine the best treatment for people infected with Hendra virus. Currently, there is no treatment available, but ribavirin has proven to be an effective drug in laboratory settings. Of the people infected with the disease, the best treatment was received when the symptoms were treated in a hospital setting. For example, reducing the fever and keeping the lungs clear with general medical services worked well.

Researchers are currently studying ways to prevent infection in horses. While they are working on a vaccine, they are also encouraging horse owners to store horse food in areas where it cannot be contaminated by the bats. To prevent the spread to humans, good hygiene, such as hand washing, is encouraged, especially if caring for horses. In addition, any cuts or open wounds should be covered. Care should be taken to avoid contact with fluids from horses as well.

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