Analyzing a New Virus: Australian Government Web Site Explains Emergence of Hendra Virus

CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.

With an economy based heavily in agriculture and livestock, Australia has a lot to lose if a pandemic like foot and mouth disease, or a mutation of bird flu, or a completely new disease affects animals there.

At the same time, the country is mad for horse sports, especially flat racing, eventing, harness racing and rodeo sports. Australia is a hub for horses headed to and from the Philipines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, New Zealand and everywhere in-between, and, along with New Zealand, a nursery of bloodstock for horse sports all over Asia.

The country was shocked in the 1990s when an unidentified virus struck not only a group of racehorses, but the trainer and groom as well. The more researchers looked at it, the more baffled they became. They had found a new virus, a new disease threat, and one with that worst of all characteristic, the ability to jump from horses to humans. “Hendra” virus, named for the town in the state of Queensland where it first emerged, had the infectious disease community on the edge of its lab stool.

Comparison with other viruses, through sequencing of some viral genes, soon showed that the mystery virus was most closely related to a group known as morbilliviruses, which contains viruses such as measles, rinderpest and canine distemper viruses. It had not been reported before anywhere in the world.

Now, the Australians have created a web site with a downloadable PowerPoint lecture and slide show for educators to use in the classroom, or for those interested in equine (or any species) infectious diseases. Created by Judith Maunders of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL), this is a gem of equine science education.

Let’s hope we never need to study Hendra virus because of another outbreak, but this educational program is a great introduction to how scientific investigations approach a disease and how a virus was identified and categorized. Thanks to CSIRA and AAHL for posting this material on the web for all to see and use.




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