Study Shows Pigs May Spread Hendra Virus

AUSTRALIA - According to researchers, pigs have the potential to spread the deadly Hendra virus to humans in the same way horses do.
calendar icon 1 February 2010
clock icon 3 minute read

New research by scientists in Canada has shown pigs can contract the bat-borne virus.

The finding raises the prospect that pigs could act as intermediate hosts, contracting Hendra from bats and passing it to humans in the same way horses have done, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

To date, only seven human cases of Hendra have been recorded - all in Queensland and all traced to horses infected by bats. Four of those cases have been fatal.

While it's known that cats, guinea pigs and ferrets can also contract the virus, they have not been linked to human infections.

Cows and sheep cannot be infected because the virus is unable to penetrate their cells but news that Hendra can be carried by pigs is of concern, given their prevalence.

"This new finding indicates that pigs are susceptible to HeV (Hendra) infections and could potentially play a role as an intermediate host in transmission to humans," said a report on the research by Canadian bodies including the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease.

Hendra is closely related to the potentially fatal Nipah virus - another bat-borne virus found in southeast Asia which is transmitted from bats to pigs and from pigs to humans.

There have also been human to human transmissions of Nipah but no examples of human to human transmissions of Hendra.

The Hendra study showed that Landrace pigs, used globally by the pork industry, and Gottingen minipigs, were susceptible to Hendra. All infected pigs were destroyed at the end of the study.

Dr Peter Reid, a Brisbane vet involved in the first known Hendra outbreak, said the Canadian research was important.

"It (Hendra) is more likely to occur in free range pigs and feral pig populations where fruit bats are, rather than intensive piggeries which are enclosed," Dr Reid said.

"Having said that, if there are trees really close to the piggery, which might be overhanging with fruit on them and inhabited by fruit bats, then there is a risk.

"That's what happened in Malaysia with the Nipah virus. They had pig farms near housing which had fruit trees hanging over the walls and partially eaten mangoes from bats came into contact with the pigs."

Dr Reid said funding for the development of an animal vaccine to stop the virus from spreading was even more important now that pigs could also contract the virus.

He said CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) needed more funds to develop the vaccine.

Hendra was first identified in 1994 in the Brisbane suburb of the same name when a stable of 13 racehorses and trainer Vic Rail died from the virus.

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