Thursday 28 July 2011

Hendra Virus | Family battles to keep best mate

Hendra Queensland
Liz and Neil Fearon on their farm at Mount Alford.
The owners of the first dog to test positive to Hendra virus won't put down their pet until the infection is confirmed in a third round of testing.

Neil Fearon said his family had already lost three horses to the flying fox-borne disease, and saving antibody-positive kelpie Dusty would be to the benefit of science, as well as the family.

The family of four, including two boys, is baffled as to why the animals became infected with the potentially deadly virus.

"This is the young fella's best mate, and for us to put him down is going to be a real struggle," Mr Fearon said, referring to his 11-year-old son.

"It's hard to explain to a boy who is not even 12 why his healthy best mate has to be put down."

As he spoke, choking back tears, the two-year-old kelpie cavorted at his feet.

The family dug in yesterday as Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and her NSW counterpart, Barry O'Farrell, agreed to contribute an additional $6 million for research into the disease, and the development of treatments.

Speaking at the gate of his quarantined property at Mount Alford, 80km southwest of Brisbane, Mr Fearon said the family had reluctantly accepted that Dusty could be a threat to their health, and would have him euthanased if the latest samples were positive.

The initial round of tests was negative, but more sophisticated screening at the CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory detected Hendra antibodies in the dog's blood. However, he is not infectious nor showing any sign of illness.

Mr Fearon said he was mystified as to how Hendra had spread on the property when there was little to attract fruit bats. He had seen none of the creatures since pulling up a grove of banana trees six years ago.

Dusty is the first dog known to have contracted the virus in the field, which was previously confined to flying foxes, horses and humans. Biosecurity authorities believe he was infected by one of the horses on the property.

Yesterday, a joint NSW-Queensland meeting of medical and scientific experts met to discuss the escalating emergency, which involves 11 outbreaks from far north Queensland to northern NSW. The eruption of Hendra is unprecedented in its geographic spread and viral load in flying foxes, and the discovery on Monday that it can infect dogs.

Queensland's chief veterinary surgeon Rick Symons said biosecurity staff had explained to the Fearons it was national policy to euthanase an animal with a positive test for Hendra virus. "The decision has not been made, but the policy is -- it was confirmed at a national conference -- and it is to put it down," he said.

Biosecurity Queensland principal veterinary epidemiologist Hume Field said the spike in cases may be linked to summer rains.

Federal MP Scott Buchholz, whose sprawling southern Queensland electorate includes three areas affected by Hendra, said Dusty should be spared while he was asymptomatic.

Author | Source | Rosanne Barrett | The Australian, July 28th | Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen. 

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