Views of horse owners sought in the fight against Hendra Virus

Following recent outbreaks of the deadly Hendra Virus and the release of a vaccine for horses, a new long term study, the Horse Owners and HENDRA Virus project (HHALTER) is seeking the involvement of horse owners from across Australia to track the impacts of the disease.
Hendra virus is found in flying foxes but has spilled-over several times, with deadly consequences, into horses, people and in one case a dog.
Dr Mel Taylor, from the University of Western Sydney's School of Medicine, says the new research will provide a resource to track horse owner risk awareness, mitigation practices, and the effectiveness of government health and safety advice.
"Hendra virus is having an impact beyond the immediate and tragic loss of life," says Dr Taylor, who has expertise researching the psychosocial impacts of epidemics and outbreaks of disease, including the 2007 outbreak of Equine Influenza.
"A combination of high human mortality, no medical cure or human vaccine, and transmission through animals with which people often have a very close bond, has heightened awareness and resulted in Hendra Virus becoming a frightening and dreaded threat."
Dr Taylor says the last two years have seen some big changes, both in the number of cases and the ways to reduce the risk of infection, which now includes a vaccine for horses. 
"We want to look at how knowledge, attitudes, and practices change over the next two years, and how events, such as new Hendra virus cases, better scientific information, changes to advice, media coverage, and the introduction of Hendra virus vaccination impact the people who manage and care for horses."
She says since the first identified case in 1994 to 2010 known spillover events – where the virus crosses from flying foxes to horses - occurred rarely and intermittently, and as such the threat to horse owners although severe, was regarded as highly improbable, and therefore a distant threat. 
However in 2011, an unprecedented cluster of 18 flying fox-horse spill over events occurred within a 12 week period and the potential for a new animal host was publically identified when a dog tested seropositive for Hendra virus. 
"The occurrence of this 'super-cluster' of cases led to a step-change in the risk perception of horse owners, and others; with the perceived probability of exposure increasing," says Dr Taylor.
"The presence of a severe threat, such as Hendra virus, combined with a sense of personal vulnerability may result in greater awareness and uptake of protective behaviours in some people, but may equally result in 'maladaptive coping', such as denial, fatalism, or avoidance in others."
Dr Taylor, a member of the UWS School of Medicine Disaster Response and Resilience Research Group, is leading a cross disciplinary team that will survey horse owners from across all industry sectors over a two year period. 
The Horse owners and Hendra: A Longitudinal study To Evaluate Risk (HHALTER) study will comprise five surveys conducted at six-monthly intervals including three consecutive peak Hendra Virus outbreak periods and two 'quieter' intervening periods.
"The situation with Hendra virus is dynamic. This study will enable us to be flexible and adaptive in tracking changes in Hendra virus risk awareness and understanding, and people's uptake of recommended strategies and practices designed to limit transmission pathways of HeV to horses and humans," she says.
"In addition to the risk for personal safety and that of family, friends and employees, for horse owners a Hendra virus outbreak on their property and the inevitable loss of horses has the potential to impact on them in many ways.  So, it's also important to look at the psychological, social and financial impact of Hendra virus on individuals, families, businesses and communities."
Those wanting more information are encouraged to visit the HHALTER survey website or contact the research team on for more details.
The research team comprises researchers from UWS, The University of Sydney, Biosecurity Queensland and Biosecurity NSW.
The University of Western Sydney was contracted by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation to undertake this research project. This research was funded by the Commonwealth of Australia, the State of New South Wales and the State of Queensland under the National Hendra Virus Research Program.
This study has been approved by the University of Western Sydney Human Research Ethics Committee. The approval number is H9824.


10 December 2012