Hendra virus infection - including symptoms, treatment and prevention

Hendra virus infection is a serious condition which can be fatal caused by Hendra virus. The virus was first discovered after an outbreak of illness in horses at a stable in Hendra, Brisbane in 1994. Since then, seven people have been confirmed to have Hendra virus infection, four of whom died. All the events occurred in New South Wales and Queensland.

Hendra virus infection is a notifiable condition1

How Hendra virus is spread

The mode of spread of Hendra virus is uncertain.

Horses may contract the virus by consuming water or food contaminated with saliva or droppings of infected flying foxes (bats). Spread between horses occurs in situations of close contact.

Spread to humans occurs through direct contact with body fluids of sick horses, such as nasal secretions or blood products.

Usually a high level of exposure is required to acquire the virus, such as may occur among stable workers and veterinarians. Low levels of contact such as patting or feeding the animals does not seem to be a risk.

There is no evidence of human to human spread.

Signs and symptoms of  Hendra virus infection

Signs and symptoms in humans may include flu-like symptoms such as:

  • fever
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • tiredness.

Complications such as pneumonia (lung infection or inflammation) and meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord), or encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) may develop. In meningitis and encephalitis, symptoms may include headache, fever or drowsiness leading to coma and death.

Diagnosis of  Hendra virus infection

Diagnosis can be made by blood and urine tests. In some cases, testing of nasal swabs, tissues samples and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)  is required.

Incubation period

(time between becoming infected and developing symptoms)

Between 5 and 21 days

Infectious period

(time during which an infected person can infect others)

Human to human spread has not yet been reported, however, symptomatic humans should be considered infectious until recovery.

Treatment for  Hendra virus infection

There is no specific treatment for Hendra virus infection. Treatment is mainly supportive to help relieve symptoms and to reduce complications from the illness. People who are suspected to have the virus or have been in close contact with horses that might have the infection should be reviewed by an infectious diseases specialist, and may require hospital admission.

Prevention of  Hendra virus infection

There is no effective vaccine available for Hendra virus infection for humans and the most important way to prevent infection is to use good hygiene practices when handling horses.

  • Exclude people with Hendra virus infection from childcare, preschool, school and work until well.
  • Do not kiss the horse on the muzzle.
  • Do not place water or horse feed under or near a fruiting or flowering tree, which can attract flying foxes.
  • Wash hands regularly before and after handling horses.
  • Cover wounds or cuts with a waterproof dressing before touching horses. If secretions or body fluids from the horse come into contact with broken skin or mucous membranes , wash the area thoroughly with soap and water.
  • Avoid contact with sick horses. If contact with a sick horse is unavoidable, wear full protective personal clothing such as gloves, goggles, masks, long sleeves and long trousers. Shower and change clothes after handling a sick horse. Contaminated clothes should be washed and dried thoroughly.
  • Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your horse might be infected with Hendra virus.
  • Contact your local hospital or local doctor if you are concerned that you or someone around you might have been exposed to Hendra virus.
  • Avoid donating blood if you suspect that you have been exposed to Hendra virus until you are cleared of infection.

Useful links

1 - In South Australia the law requires doctors and laboratories to report some infections or diseases to SA Health. These infections or diseases are commonly referred to as 'notifiable conditions'.