CSIRO scientists find flying foxes with Hendra virus across much of Australia

CSIRO scientists have found that the potentially deadly Hendra virus is across a much larger part of Australia than previously thought, after uncovering an unidentified type of the virus in southern and western states.

RISK: The Hendra virus disease risk to horses and people who interact with horses, can be reduced through biosecurity methods, including vaccination and personal protection equipment.

RISK: The Hendra virus disease risk to horses and people who interact with horses, can be reduced through biosecurity methods, including vaccination and personal protection equipment.

It was originally thought the black and spectacled flying foxes were the primary carriers of Hendra virus.

But a study published in Virology Journal found a new genetic type of Hendra in grey-headed flying foxes in Victoria and South Australia from 2013 - 2021, and in the little red flying fox in Western Australia in 2015.

Before this spill over of the disease from flying foxes to horses it had only been reported in Queensland and NSW.

The CSIRO work confirmed the virus can be found in all four species of flying foxes and in a broad geographic range of Australia.

There is no known cure for Hendra, which was first identified in the Brisbane suburb of Hendra in 1994.

Since then it has been found at places like Tamborine Mountain, Redlands and northern NSW.

While flying foxes transmit the virus through bodily fluids, humans have only ever contracted the virus from horses.

Seven people have contracted Hendra and four have died from the virus that has killed dozens of horses.

Among the fatalities was Redland veterinarian Ben Cuneen, who died in 2008.

A horse vaccine has been developed but some people at Logan and the Scenic Rim have declined its use due to social media misinformation and complaints about costs.

CSIRO researcher Kim Halpin said flying fox research was crucial to understanding viruses they could carry, and the factors leading to transmission.

Dr Halpin said because the new genetic type of Hendra virus (variant Genotype 2) was so genetically similar to the original Hendra virus in Queensland and NSW, there was a risk to horses wherever flying foxes were found.

On October 5, the new variant was found in a fatal horse case near Newcastle. This was the southernmost case of Hendra virus detection.

Dr Halpin said Hendra had never been reported to spread directly from flying foxes to humans.

"It's always been transmitted from infected horses to humans. We expect this new genetic type would behave the same way," Dr Halpin said.

Equine Veterinarians Australia president Steve Dennis said: "Owners and any people who interact with horses can reduce the risk of infection from Hendra virus by vaccination of horses, wearing appropriate personal protection equipment, removing feed and water from underneath trees frequented by flying foxes, moving horses out of paddocks when trees attractive to flying foxes are flowering, and seeking early veterinary attention for sick horses."