This is an article I wrote for a magazine that I thought worthwhile to reproduce, it part, here for you.
On Monday afternoon 12 June 2006, I first noticed Clive, my 16.2hh thoroughbred gelding, was unwell. I concluded either mild colic or a chill in his back. Nothing too serious. However, despite treatment he deteriorated rapidly and died the afternoon of Wednesday 14 June. Ten days later we were told tests showed he died from Hendra virus that is carried by flying foxes.
Every day, still, I check my remaining horse, Girly, for symptoms. If she is lying down, I check on her, I check where she is in the paddock and what she is doing. Last year she came down with colic. I was so scared I tried four times before I could dial the vet’s number then hysterically explained my fears. This is what my family lives with after a brush with Hendra virus.
We struggled with the loss of Clive and all it entailed. My property was quarantined, the media hovered, rumours spread and I was preoccupied with tests and needles and test results and phone calls and questions with few answers. What do you say when your child asks, ‘Are you going to die like Clive?’ My children had already lost their father, what would happen if they lost their mother too? I now know that had Girly tested positive to Hendra virus, even without showing signs of illness, she would have been euthanized.
Despite having a large flying fox colony next to my property, I knew nothing about Hendra virus, what it was or where it came from. The authorities were well aware of the colony, yet at no stage were we advised of the dangers it posed to our horses.
I asked all the questions still being asked today, and the answers now are the same as they were in 2006. I ploughed through national and international media reports, scientific reports and research papers and the information I uncovered shocked me. There were many things I could do nothing about, but making people aware of the virus that was right in our own backyards, was something I could do and that resulted in my book ‘Spillover: A Memoir.’
The term spillover is used when a disease crosses from one species to another, in this case from the bats to horses, but for me it is also the spillover of emotion that occurs with this type of event. The media reports and official statements of Clive’s death did not portray the full impact it had on my family and this was what I wanted to express. I needed something positive to come from the terrible situation we found ourselves in. I received this comment from a reader of my book -
“I can’t begin to thank you for writing your book. I have found more assistance and insight into Hendra virus, than all the bit websites I have searched through. I live on the NSW North coast, very close to the "circle" of recent outbreaks. It has been your book that has guided me through what to do regarding my horses, their paddocks and, most importantly, armed me with the correct info I, and all my horse people friends, desperately seek. I am now encouraging all at my Equestrian club to purchase or read your story as your words have more meaning to us…”
At the time, Clive’s death was only the 6th recorded Hendra virus case since 1994. I found this hard to comprehend given the numbers of flying foxes throughout Australia. There are other diseases and conditions that present with similar symptoms, but if you don’t test for the virus, you don’t know, so the death of a horse may be attributed to lead or plant poisoning, more commonly snake bite or colic or an unknown cause. The recent increase in recorded cases I believe is the result of more testing for Hendra virus rather than an actual increase of infections.
A second review into Hendra virus cases in 2008 included the following statement about my book ‘Spillover: A Memoir.’
“The value of positive role models who can present real-world and personalised accounts of their experiences is considered to be very worthwhile. The account by the owner of the 2006 Hendra virus case at Peachester (Crane 2006) is an informative read that effectively communicates the uncertainties and the challenges faced by individuals affected by Hendra virus.”
Despite criticism of my vet's endeavours to better inform the community when her own life was under threat from exposure to Hendra virus, she stood her ground and demanded action and she was vindicated. Today, far more help, support and information is available to victims of the virus.
Since the release of my book in 2008, I have met with Biosecurity Qld staff together with other concerned horse owners to discuss Hendra virus related matters. My primary goal was for proactive measures to increase awareness and we are seeing that occur now, albeit a number of years later, and I have participated in some of the seminars conducted by DEEDI and Qld Horse Council to help achieve this.
We wanted to eliminate the statement that the virus was ‘rare, sporadic and hard to contract,’ even though statistically and scientifically, that may be true. I believe the repeated use of these words to describe Hendra virus has led to complacency within the horse industry that resulted in the subsequent human infections. One expert has stated that the risks cannot be over-emphasised, saying while the likelihood of getting a bat-borne virus is low, the consequences for humans are catastrophic. It is often fatal - as we already know.
We also sought to change the arbitrary classification of the symptoms of Hendra virus and for all possible symptoms to be listed. My own readings of research documents showed variations in symptoms was already known – not all horses showed all the symptoms listed every the time. And this was the situation with Clive, he didn’t meet the classifications for Hendra virus. If it wasn’t for my vet's persistence, Clive’s cause of death would have fallen into the ‘unknown’ category. This has now been achieved and included in the information available.
A leading scientist working with Hendra virus indicated at one of these meetings I attended, that Hendra virus should be suspected if no other cause of illness is immediately apparent and appropriate precautions taken. That rocked me and the other horse owners who heard it. I believe it foreshadowed the major changes we now see and need to implement in the way we and our vets handle our horses.
I also attended a workshop into Hendra virus conducted by the World Health Organisation. That session brought home to me the seriousness with which the international community views this virus. And so should we.
We were not experts or veterinarians or scientists but we stayed on the heels of the authorities like a cattle dog and today we say, “Told you so.”
The vaccine now available uses the “G” protein to invoke an immune response and doesn’t require the use of live virus in the vaccine. Girly has been vaccinated and while I know it is not a 100% guarantee, it certainly gives my family a degree of relief and peace of mind.
The Hendra virus/flying fox debate is difficult but despite what my family has been through my eldest daughter said. “I don’t suppose we can really blame the bats can we? They don’t know they have the virus, they don’t infect the horses on purpose. They are just doing what bats do.”
I don’t believe the virus will ever be eliminated. What we can do is make ourselves aware of the facts and even when a horse is vaccinated, precautions are still be required to keep our animals and ourselves safe. It must be remembered there is no cure for the virus for either humans or horses.
Spillover: A Memoir is available at www.spillover.com.au or you can find it on ebay and at facebook/Spillover