In September 1994, a prominent Queensland horse trainer Mr Vic Rail, his stablehand, and most of his horses fell ill to a sudden and mysterious illness.
Within several days, the trainer and 14 horses were dead.
As the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI) collected specimens from affected race horses and submitted them for testing at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong, Victoria, newspapers ran with headlines like ‘Death virus cancels races, threatens Cup’.
AAHL’s diagnostic team isolated and identified what proved to be a new virus that had not been reported anywhere else in the world.
Researchers initially named it equine morbillivirus, however, further genetic analysis showed that the most appropriate classification of the virus was as a new genus within the Paramyxoviridae family.
The name Hendra is now used, after the name of the Brisbane suburb in which the outbreak occurred.
The strength of AAHL’s capabilities was clearly demonstrated by the manner in which the infectious agent was isolated, the disease reproduced in horses and the virus eventually identified using electron microscopy and gene sequence analysis.
With the cause of the disease outbreak known, AAHL researchers developed diagnostic tests.
QDPI, Queensland Health and AAHL tested more than 2 500 horse samples and 150 human samples, not finding any new cases.
In the last 17 years, seven people have been confirmed to have been infected with Hendra virus, four of whom have died as a result of the disease.
In addition to the initial case in 1994, a farmer from Mackay died in 1995 and two Queensland vets passed away in separate incidents in 2008 and 2009.
There have also been 14 clusters of Hendra virus infection recorded in horses since the virus was first identified.
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