Abstracts: Hendra virus and horse owners – risk perception and management

Hendra virus is a highly pathogenic novel paramyxovirus causing sporadic fatal infection in horses and humans in Australia. Species of fruit-bats (genus Pteropus), commonly known as flying-foxes, are the natural host of the virus. We undertook a survey of horse owners in the states of Queensland and New South Wales, Australia to assess the level of adoption of recommended risk management strategies and to identify impediments to adoption.

Survey questionnaires were completed by 1431 respondents from the target states, and from a spectrum of industry sectors.

Hendra virus knowledge varied with sector, but was generally limited, with only 13% of respondents rating their level of knowledge as high or very high. The majority of respondents (63%) had seen their state’s Hendra virus information for horse owners, and a similar proportion found the information useful. Fifty-six percent of respondents thought it moderately, very or extremely likely that a Hendra virus case could occur in their area, yet only 37% said they would consider Hendra virus if their horse was sick. Only 13% of respondents stabled their horses overnight, although another 24% said it would be easy or very easy to do so, but hadn’t done so. Only 13% and 15% of respondents respectively had horse feed bins and water points under solid cover.

Responses varied significantly with state, likely reflecting different Hendra virus history.

The survey identified inconsistent awareness and/or adoption of available knowledge, confusion in relation to Hendra virus risk perception, with both over-and under-estimation of true risk, and lag in the uptake of recommended risk minimisation strategies, even when these were readily implementable. However, we also identified frustration and potential alienation by horse owners who found the recommended strategies impractical, onerous and prohibitively expensive.

The insights gained from this survey have broader application to other complex risk-management scenarios.

The study is from the Queensland Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, Biosecurity Queensland, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia; Animal Biosecurity & Welfare Program, Biosecurity Queensland, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

Kung N, McLaughlin A, Taylor M, et al. PLoS One. 2013;8(11): e80897.