Hendra virus claims fourth Australian

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) may see an increase in demand for research on the bat-borne Hendra virus (HeV). On Sept. 1, 2009, Hendra claimed Australian veterinarian Alister Rodgers (pictured right).  Dr. Rodgers is the second vet to die from Hendra, and the fourth of seven humans to succumb to the virus (below).

VIN (Veterinary Information Network) reports:
There is no known cure for Hendra virus (genus Henipavirus, family Paramyxoviridae). The disease gets its name from the Brisbane suburb where it was first isolated in 1994, from specimens obtained during an outbreak of respiratory and neurologic disease in horses and humans, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Humans become ill after exposure to the body fluids of horses infected with the virus. The natural reservoir for Hendra virus is suspected to be Australia’s flying foxes.

Veterinarians are more at risk to contract Hendra since they are the most likely to spend time with sick horses. A survey of 4,000 vets conducted by the CDC through the American Veterinary Medical Association found that even though vets were concerned about zoonotic disease, the concerns didn’t translate to better biosecurity practices. The results of this study highlight the need for veterinarians to put biosecurity practices into action and establish standard procedures to reduce infection of vets and their staff.

The Compendium of Veterinary Standard Precautions for Zoonotic Disease Prevention in Veterinary Personnel was published in the Aug. 1, 2008 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The 18-page document gives guidance on everything from isolating animals with infectious diseases to cleaning and decontamination. Its appendixes address zoonotic diseases of importance in the US as well as the characteristics of disinfectants.

The Australian Veterinary Association said:
Vets around Australia are mourning the death of Dr Rodgers.  It is absolutely devastating to lose another vet so soon, and we must do everything within our power to stop this from ever happening again. All indications are that Hendra is here to stay. It is probable that cases will emerge in states other than Queensland. Governments around Australia need to take this disease seriously right now and invest in measures to address the problem.

Learn more about Hendra through ABC’s Catalyst.


Today’s New York Times has a great article on viruses, inspired by writer Natalie Angier’s post-New Year’s Eve norovirus encounter.

In it she writes that viruses are:

infectious parasitic agents tiny enough to pass through a microfilter that would trap bacteria and other microbes, tiny enough to fit millions on board a single fleck of spit. All viruses have at their core compact genetic instructions for making more viruses, some of the booklets written in DNA, others in the related nucleic language of RNA. Our cells have the means to read either code, whether they ought to or not. Encasing the terse viral genomes are capsids, protective coats constructed of interlocking protein modules and decorated with some sort of docking device, a pleat of just the right shape to infiltrate a particular cell. Rhinoviruses dock onto receptors projecting from the cells of our nasal passages, while hepatitis viruses are shaped to exploit portholes on liver cells.

I’ve been a big fan of viruses for a long time.  I read a book in high school (Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC) which led me into molecular biology and genetics, where virology became my favourite undergraduate course. Angier succinctly summarizes why I think viruses are so cool:

They depend on our cells to manufacture every detail of their offspring, to print up new copies of the core instruction booklets, to fabricate the capsid jackets and to deliver those geometrically tidy newborn virions to fresh host shores. Through us, viruses can transcend mere chemistry and lay claim to biology.