Equine Morbillivirus

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SpeakersAmery Mr Richard; Rixon Mr Barry
BusinessMinisterial Statement

Ministerial Statement

Mr AMERY (Mount Druitt - Minister for Agriculture) [5.20], by leave: I wish to make a ministerial statement about the equine morbillivirus. The House will recall the widely publicised death of
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several horses and their trainer, Mr Vic Rail, at Hendra in Queensland in September 1994. It was later confirmed that the deaths were due to EMV. The House will also recall the death of another man at Mackay, which again was confirmed to be due to EMV. After the initial detected outbreak of EMV in September 1994, the Queensland Department of Primary Industries began surveillance primarily concentrating on the horse population, and successfully demonstrated its freedom from EMV. Since 1994 targeted survey programs have progressively widened to include most domestic animal species, as well as a large number of targeted wildlife species.

Scientists have tested over 5,300 blood samples from 46 species of domestic animals and wildlife from a wide area of Queensland. Species tested included dogs, cats and cattle, as well as rats, mice, possums, cane toads, kangaroos, cockroaches, snails, slugs, donkeys and bandicoots. The wildlife survey was primarily aimed at detecting the source of the virus based on the presumption that a natural reservoir host is present in Queensland or in the wider Australian environment. EMV needs a living animal host to survive. We know that EMV is not a normal horse virus, but that some animal must be its host. It may be that these tests have identified the natural host for EMV. Until now all domestic and wildlife testing for EMV antibodies has been negative.

In the past few weeks, as a result of the activities of a small team of field staff, together with laboratory staff at the Animal Research Institute at Yeerongpilly, the Queensland DPI has detected serological positive reactions on testing from flying foxes of two species, the black flying fox and the spectacled flying fox. Flying foxes were the only animal species, other than the seven horses involved in the initial outbreak, to have recorded antibodies that reacted to EMV. Samples were taken from flying foxes in Central and North Queensland, as well as the greater Brisbane area. I must stress at this stage that no flying fox populations in New South Wales have yet been tested. Of the 55 flying foxes tested, 20 per cent tested positive for EMV antibodies indicating widespread, but not necessarily fatal, viral infection in flying fox populations.

The validity of this test - the ELISA test - and the validity of the results have since been confirmed by serum neutralisation tests carried out on a small range of the sera consigned to Australian Animal Health Laboratories in Geelong. This validation is the most significant development so far in our wildlife studies. The reactions are being cautiously interpreted as indicating exposure to a bat paramyxovirus, which is similar to or the same as EMV. Flying foxes sampled come from both captive and free-to-air populations. The Queensland DPI will now focus heavily on sampling selected colonies of flying foxes in an attempt to isolate the bat paramyxovirus. Further studies in other flying fox species found in Queensland are also being undertaken. Sampling of other wildlife species will continue.

Health and wildlife authorities in Queensland and New South Wales have been briefed. Advice for members of the public, especially those who handle flying foxes, is being developed in conjunction with those authorities. It is most important that a nationally coordinated approach be adopted. It is appropriate that full consultation with all agencies in all States continue. No doubt, the National Vertebrate Pest Committee will be involved, as will be the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Queensland DPI. At this stage I commend the Queensland DPI and its senior veterinary office, Dr Ian Douglas, for his magnificent work in relation to the morbillivirus. Officers of New South Wales Agriculture are in constant contact with their Queensland counterparts and New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service to ensure a coordinated approach.

I must stress that as serious as the implications of EMV are, and as its very potent and deadly impact in 1994-95 was, it has been confirmed that this virus is very difficult to transmit from species to species or from animal to human. A lot of people who were exposed to EMV during the 1994-95 incidences were not affected. It seems this virus struck its victims then disappeared. The survey has been trying to detect the virus ever since. I must assure the House that, while this is very serious, we must not panic. There is very little cause for alarm as far as public health is concerned. The very fact that the virus has apparently been present in flying fox populations for some time, and that such populations have been in close contact with people without any obvious evidence of cross-infection, reinforces the initial belief of health authorities that the virus, if it is the same as EMV, is most difficult to spread and represents a very low risk. The unfortunate and sad death of Mr Rail was apparently brought about by very close contact with his horses. It is believed he contracted EMV from his horses whilst he was hand feeding them during their illness.

Apparently this involved him putting his hands into their mouths and throats to assist them in feeding, whilst he had open wounds on his hands and arms. However, given this latest finding it would be irresponsible not to advise people to take reasonable precautions when handling flying foxes to avoid any unnecessary exposure to the virus. Without trying to pre-empt the decisions of a nationally coordinated effort, it would seem appropriate that all testing and research should be centred at one laboratory, perhaps Yeerongpilly, and under the direction of the Queensland DPI. In New South Wales tests for EMV will be carried out at Elizabeth Macarthur Agriculture Institute veterinary laboratory, if needed. As most of our flying fox and bat population is in northern New South Wales we would also be able to test for EMV at Wollongbar, if required. At this early stage I have asked our equine specialist, Dr Rod Hoare, to help coordinate the New South Wales response. It is important that uninformed and alarmist reactions
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to this news are kept to a minimum. I can assure the House that my department will cooperate fully in a coordinated national approach.

Mr RIXON (Lismore) [5.27]: The Minister for Agriculture is right. EMV poses quite a threat to people and industry within New South Wales. We should note that the horse industry in New South Wales employs something like 50,000 people and caters for millions of racing and horse enthusiasts each year. Nationally the industry is worth something like $2.4 billion annually. We must take no chances with the State's horse breeding and racing industries and those working in such industries. In the lead-up to the Olympics, when large numbers of horses will be imported, it is vital for the State to maintain domestic and international confidence in the horse industry. The suspected death in Queensland is a real worry.

Queensland is now conducting further research. The Department of Primary Industries veterinary scientists in Queensland are one step closer to solving the EMV puzzle with the discovery that some flying foxes have been infected with a similar virus. Queensland's Minister for Primary Industries said that since EMV was first detected in September 1994, DPI scientists have tested 5,300 blood samples from 46 species of domestic animals and wildlife, including horses, rats, mice, cane toads, native rodents, birds, cattle, cats, dogs, pigs, kangaroos, cockroaches, snails, slugs, donkeys and bandicoots.

The Queensland Minister said that flying foxes were the only animal species, other than the seven horses involved in the initial outbreak, to have recorded antibodies that reacted to EMV. Blood taken from some flying foxes in central and north Queensland and the Brisbane area had returned positive tests. Two of the four common species of flying foxes, the spectacled and black, had tested positive. DPI scientists in collaboration with other researchers will continue their work to determine whether these newly detected flying fox viruses were similar or the same. This work will include further surveying of flying fox colonies and research to isolate the virus from flying foxes. However, while critically important from the scientific perspective, it is also critically important from the human and industrial perspective to find out exactly what is happening with the EMV virus, but there is a long way to go.

New South Wales has four species: the Grey-headed, Little Red, Black and Spectacled. Are these species carrying similar viruses to those in Queensland or are there differences? In 1986 research was carried out on flying foxes that showed that they eat in a very distinctive way. They bite off pieces of their food and after chewing vigorously spit out whatever they do not choose to swallow. This produces the two varieties of droppings, one faecal and the other of spat-out material that can be found under resident colonies. Since 1986 the droppings of ten colonies have been tested. Much research needs to be done with flying foxes. In the 1982 Medical Journal of Australia there were suggestions that flying foxes could possibly be the cause or carrier of the disease toxocariasis. I shall read an excerpt from that journal:
      Toxocariasis may have been the cause of the outbreak of a hepatitis-like illness amongst residents of the Palm Island community in 1979. Baby fruit bats on the Island were infected with [the disease], and many eggs of this worm were recovered from mangoes.

The life cycle of this worm is described and compared with other similar worms. The infection could have been prevented by washing the mangoes before eating them. Research is needed in a variety of areas. Is New South Wales able to match that research and will it be the same quality as that undertaken in Queensland? The north coast has lost 150 people from its agriculture departments. Laboratories across the State have been changed, closed or altered. Those laboratories have lost much of the expertise New South Wales once had. Senior researchers have packed up and left. That expertise is no longer available. How do the people on the north coast feel about that?

The Minister says there are large colonies of these bats on the north coast. How must the people of the Clarence electorate feel when a large colony exists on Susan Island, which is in Grafton city? Grafton is one centre of the horse racing industry on the north coast. Down river to the Maclean there are large bat colonies in the trees beside schools. The Minister is right: this is a matter of urgency. It must be dealt with quickly so that people will not be worried. The Minister has allowed the services to deteriorate to the point when he must be asked: can he confidently say to the people of the north coast and of the Clarence and Lismore electorates that New South Wales Agriculture and the National Parks and Wildlife Service will be able to carry out the needed research to ensure the people of that part of the world that this Government is looking after things? The Minister tries to weasel out with all sorts of edges to the answer. He knows as well as I that he has lost senior staff from the agriculture department. He cannot bring those researchers back. The Minister drove them out of the department. He lost them for the people of New South Wales. The Minister should apologise to the people of the north coast. [Time expired.]