The Queensland and New South Wales Governments have announced a four-fold increase in funding to fast-track research into the baffling Hendra virus.
A spate of recent outbreaks and the first diagnosis of the virus in a pet dog this week has sparked the release of emergency funding to accelerate research into the causes of the virus.
Hendra virus has been responsible for the deaths of four people and 52 horses since 1994.
It is by carried by flying foxes but mystery surrounds the precise circumstances that facilitate its spread.
The Queensland and NSW Governments have increased funding for the Hendra Virus Taskforce from $1.5m to $6m over three years.
The funding will be used to accelerate the Taskforce's investigations into key unknowns such as why the virus spills-over from flying foxes, how horses and other animals are exposed to the virus, and why there has been such a spike in cases this year.
Analysis of local flying fox populations this year has identified a rise in the number of flying foxes carrying the virus.
It is known that flying foxes are attracted to particular types of trees and that the virus is likely to be transmitted through flying fox excretions.
It is hoped the research will build on that knowledge in several ways:
- Improving understanding on how the disease behaves in flying fox colonies – through mapping age and immunity structures within colonies and monitoring the stress of a colony by testing steroid levels in urine
- Examining how horses and flying foxes interact – through further monitoring of flying fox and other animal behaviour at night, with more infra-red cameras in more locations throughout Queensland and NSW
- Determining how environmental factors, such as food availability, temperature and rainfall impact on the likelihood of the disease 'spilling over' from flying foxes to animals.
- Achieving a better understanding of what is driving flying fox movements, including the impact of extreme climatic events, using satellite tracking and other remote sensing techniques.
- Progressing laboratory studies to investigate the susceptibility and transmission of Hendra virus in domestic species.
The funding could result in the development of a model that can be used to predict the risk of Hendra virus occurring, and improve the advice given to veterinarians and horse owners to prevent infection of horses and humans.