Electron micrograph of Hendra virus.

Electron micrograph of Hendra virus.

Hendra virus

In 1994, a deadly new virus threatened to stop Australia's premier horse race – the Melbourne Cup. This virus is now known as Hendra virus.

  • 13 May 2011 | Updated 1 November 2012


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In September 1994, a prominent Queensland horse trainer Mr Vic Rail, his stablehand, and most of his horses fell ill to a sudden and mysterious illness. Within several days, Mr Rail and 14 horses were dead.  

The Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI) collected specimens from affected race horses and submitted them for testing at CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong, Victoria.  

AAHL's diagnostic team isolated and identified what proved to be a new virus that had not been reported anywhere else in the world. Researchers initially named the virus equine morbillivirus; however, further genetic analysis showed that the most appropriate classification of the virus was to place it in a new genus within the family Paramyxoviridae. It was renamed Hendra virus, after the name of the Brisbane suburb in which the outbreak occurred.  

AAHL has been actively involved in each recorded Hendra virus incident since it first emerged in 1994.  

The strength of AAHL's capabilities was clearly demonstrated by the manner in which the infectious agent was isolated, the disease reproduced in horses and the virus eventually identified using electron microscopy and gene sequence analysed, all completed within two weeks. With the cause of the disease outbreak known, AAHL researchers developed diagnostic tests. At the time QDPI, Queensland Health and AAHL tested more than 2500 horse samples and 150 human samples however, they did not find any new cases.

Further cases (current May 2012)

Since the first identified Hendra virus incident seven people have been confirmed to have been infected with Hendra virus, four of whom have died as a result of the disease.

In addition to the initial case in 1994, a farmer from Mackay died in 1995 and two Queensland vets passed away in separate incidents in 2008 and 2009. From 1994-2010 14 clusters of Hendra virus infection were recorded in horses.

In 2011, Australia witnessed an unprecedented spike in the number of Hendra virus cases in horses in both Queensland and New South Wales with 18 outbreaks and 24 cases in horses reported. 2011 was also the year that the first dog tested positive to the Hendra virus. This unexpected transmission to a new species prompted an additional $6 million in Government funding towards Hendra virus research.

In July of the same year, the first confirmed outbreak of Hendra virus west of the Great Dividing Range was reported in Chinchilla, shattering perceptions that inland horse communities were safe from the virus. 

National role

As a National Facility, AAHL provides diagnosis of emergency animal diseases, which includes:

  • index case confirmation 
  • national emergency response capability
  • use of accredited and validated tests.

The facility has been actively involved in each recorded Hendra virus incident, working alongside Queensland Primary Industries and Fisheries and Queensland Health.


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