What is Morbillivirus Pneumonia?
Equine morbillivirus pneumonia has a bio-safety classification of Level 4 meaning that the illness poses a high risk of being transmitted to humans and becoming a life threatening illness to a person who does contract the illness. When working closely with a horse that has been diagnosed with hendra virus infection people must take precautions to keep from contracting the disease.
Equine morbillivirus pneumonia is also known as hendra virus infection and was first documented in 1994 in Australia. The disease presents as an acute feverish sickness and then quickly progresses into an acute respiratory or severe neurological disease.
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Symptoms of Morbillivirus Pneumonia in Horses
Generally, the onset of symptoms is rapid and need immediate medical attention. There have been a few cases where the disease progresses at a slower rate. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately for an emergency visit.
- Sudden high fever
- Labored breathing
- Frothy nasal discharge
- Bloody nasal discharge
- Head tilting
- Sudden blindness
- Abnormal muscle twitching
- Loss of balance
- Extreme discomfort, similar to colic
- Rapid death
Causes of Morbillivirus Pneumonia in Horses
Equine morbillivirus pneumonia is a virus that is transferred to horses from fruit bats or other infected horses. Fruit bats are also called flying foxes and they pass the virus through their feces, urine and saliva.
The virus is not considered to be highly contagious and only close contact with an infected animal or a fruit bat can cause your horse to become infected. Close contact with an infected horse or an infected fruit bat can cause the equine morbillivirus pneumonia to transfer to humans. There have been cases documented of dogs contracting equine morbillivirus pneumonia from infected horses.
There are no known fruit bats located within the United States. Fruit bats are most prevalent in Asia, Africa, Australia and the Middle East.
Diagnosis of Morbillivirus Pneumonia in Horses
After an initial physical examination, your veterinarian will make a definitive diagnosis of equine morbillivirus pneumonia based on laboratory results from extensive testing performed on your horse. A blood sample, urinalysis and other testing will detect the virus, viral antigen or specific antibodies associated with the illness.
Your veterinarian may also do a nasal, oral or rectal swab to diagnose equine morbillivirus pneumonia. These swabs can be taken from a horse that is alive or from one that has expired. Do not handle any specimens without using proper precautions as hendra virus can pass to humans.
Treatment of Morbillivirus Pneumonia in Horses
There are no known treatments for hendra virus infection. Other than providing supportive care for your horse, there is no other alternative for your horse. Your veterinarian will set a treatment plan for your horse, be sure to follow the treatment plan and report any changes to your veterinarian. In most cases, owners opt for euthanasia when their horse is diagnosed with equine morbillivirus pneumonia.
There is a vaccine that has been developed containing a non-infectious protein component of the hendra virus. Horses can start being vaccinated as early as 4 months of age. Two initial doses will be given, 21 days apart and then a booster vaccine should be given every 6 months.
Your veterinarian may recommend hospitalization for your horse. By hospitalizing your horse, care can be administered 24 hours a day and progress can be closely monitored. This also reduces your risk of contracting equine morbillivirus pneumonia.
Once it has been determined that your horse is infected with hendra virus, all contaminated surfaces must be thoroughly disinfected, preferably with bleach or ammonia. This includes fencing, buckets, tack or any other surface that your horse may have come in contact with.
This includes taking measures to keep fruit bats away from your horse. Place feed and water containers under cover and remove any fruiting or flowering trees that attract bats from near the stables or pastures.
Most infected horses should be euthanized to limit the risk of human exposure or the spread of the illness to other species. In Australia, the current policy is to euthanize any surviving horses since there has not been enough research done to verify the overall health of a horse that has been infected with and recovered from equine morbillivirus pneumonia.
Recovery of Morbillivirus Pneumonia in Horses
In most cases, hendra virus infection is fatal. However, occasionally a horse will survive the infection and recover. Depending on your location, even if your horse does survive the infection, euthanasia may still be required. Discuss your options with your veterinarian and follow all treatment instructions carefully. Any questions that you may have regarding your horse’s care should be directed to your veterinarian.