Saturday, December 15, 2007

Hendra is such a pretty name.

There has been an onslaught of (quasi)movies in the last few years which focus on the impending doom we may one day face from zombies/vampires/global warming. While these flicks often temp our tender imaginations, it would seem the most realistic threat we may one day face comes from bite sized flying rodents.

Back in 1994 a strange thing happened. A strange virus was discovered at a horse stable, where it had killed 13 horses, and one human. The source of the outbreak was hard to pinpoint because of the rapid emergence and retreat of the pathogen, but after some clever sleuthing the case unfolded. The virus was found to stem from contact with bats, and further testing found consistent ( albeit low) traces of the virus in local bats. The virus was named “Hendra”, for the small town in Australia it was first discovered in, and although it has never risen to the fame of ebola or the plague it shares many traits with these two known killers.

For one thing, it’s fast paced and lethal. There was nothing to be done for the infected horses, and of the two humans who showed symptoms, only one survived. Since this outbreak over a decade ago, Hendra, and its relative Nipah have repeatedly struck with deadly results, resulting in a swarm of research. Nipah has proved to be the more dangerous of the two, killing 105 humans, and resulting in the culling of over a million pigs in Malaysia in 1999.

The term “zoonosis” is another item connecting Hendra and Nipah, to the Plague, and Ebola. It refers to a pathogen which is harbored in animals, and then crosses over to affect humans. Approximately sixty percent of human infectious diseases start this way, ranging from common strains of influenza to West Nile Fever. Could zoonosis inspire our fear to the degree that zombies have? Maybe not, but it’s a more realistic enemy to be sure.


National Geographic, Octover 2007, pg82-85.

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