What Is Hendra Virus?

  • Elena Paspel Master of Science in Engineering (Digital Health) - Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia

The Hendra virus (HeV) is a formidable foe in the realm of infectious diseases, first making its ominous debut in 1994 in Hendra, Australia. With its primary vectors being bats endemic to Australia, this zoonotic pathogen has a predilection for horses but doesn't shy away from crossing over to humans, showcasing a harrowing mortality rate of 57% in the latter. Rest assured, the information provided in this article, housed within the Klarity Health Library, is meticulously researched and cited, aiming to equip you with a comprehensive understanding of the Hendra virus.

  • Origin: Hendra virus (HeV) emerged in 1994 during an outbreak in Hendra, a suburb of Brisbane, Australia.
  • Family: It belongs to the genus Henipavirus within the larger Paramyxoviridae family, sharing traits with other respiratory pathogens like the measles virus.
  • Transmission: The primary culprits behind the spread of this virus are bats endemic to Australia, which primarily infect horses. The virus can then leap from horses to humans, establishing itself as a zoonotic pathogen.
  • Symptoms: In humans, symptoms manifest about 9 to 16 days post-exposure, ranging from mild flu-like symptoms to severe respiratory or neurological symptoms.
  • Diagnosis: Diagnosis is typically confirmed through laboratory tests, including PCR and serology, with a more rapid diagnostic method known as a low-resource rapid hendra test also available.
  • Treatment: While ribavirin has been suggested as a potential treatment, a monoclonal antibody known as m102.4 shows promise in early trials.
  • Prevention: Prevention measures include vaccinating horses, avoiding contact with ill or potentially infected horses, and implementing biosecurity measures.

The intricacies of HeV and its transmission dynamics underscore the importance of continued research and preventive measures. As we delve deeper into the subsequent sections, we'll explore the risk factors associated with HeV, recent cases and outbreaks, and the ongoing efforts in the medical community to combat this deadly virus. The journey towards a comprehensive understanding of HeV and the development of effective treatments is a crucial endeavour, and there is much more to learn and discuss as we navigate through the complexities of this perilous pathogen.


Hendra virus (HeV) emerged as a perilous zoonotic pathogen in 1994, first identified during an outbreak in Hendra, a suburb of Brisbane, Australia, marking its ominous debut in the realm of infectious diseases.1,3,6 According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Hendra virus infection is a rare emerging infectious disease that can be transmitted to humans from animals. This virus isn't a lone ranger; it belongs to the notorious Henipavirus family within the larger Paramyxoviridae family, sharing traits with other respiratory pathogens like the measles virus.6 Notably, HeV is a close relative of Nipah virus (NiV), another menacing member of the genus Henipavirus, further highlighting the potential threat posed by this group of viruses.2 The primary culprits behind the spread of this virus are bats endemic to Australia, which, when they decide to share their viral load, primarily infect horses.6 However, the virus doesn't stop at horses; it leaps from horses to humans, establishing itself as a zoonotic pathogen to reckon with.6 Although human infections are rare, with only seven reported cases, the mortality rate stands at a harrowing 57%.6 This virus is known for leading to severe respiratory and neurological diseases in both humans and horses, showcasing its predilection for the respiratory and nervous systems.1,3,4 The battle against HeV is ongoing, with a vaccine for horses in the arsenal, but humans are still waiting for their shield against this deadly foe.6 The formidable nature of the Hendra virus makes it a significant adversary in the fight against infectious diseases, emphasizing the importance of continued research and preventive measures.

Transmission and symptoms

The transmission narrative of HeV primarily unfolds with bats and horses playing the lead roles. Specifically, flying foxes endemic to Australia are believed to transmit the virus to horses through contamination of feed or water with their urine, saliva, or birth products.2,6 The plot thickens as the virus can spill over to humans who have close contact with the infected horses, especially through contact with the infected bodily fluids of the latter.2,5,6

Once the virus finds its way into a human host, the symptoms typically take about 9 to 16 days to manifest post-exposure.1 The clinical manifestations can range from mild flu-like symptoms to more severe respiratory or neurological symptoms, making early detection and intervention crucial.1,3 Here's a more detailed list of symptoms as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):6

The range of symptoms underscores the importance of awareness and prompt medical attention to mitigate the severe impacts of this virus, especially given its high mortality rate in humans.

Risk factors

The risk factors associated with (HeV transmission are closely tied to geographical and ecological dynamics. 

Here are the key risk factors:

  • Residing within the distribution range of flying foxes, which are the natural reservoirs of the virus, significantly increases the risk of HeV transmission.2,5,6
  • Direct contact with ill or potentially infected horses, especially during outbreaks.2,5,6
  • Urban habituation and ecological connectivity are factors that contribute to the emergence of HeV from flying foxes, making certain areas more prone to spillover events.6
  • During the birthing seasons of flying foxes, when viral shedding is at its peak, making these periods particularly dangerous for both horses and humans.4,6

These risk factors underscore the importance of geographical and ecological awareness in the prevention and control of HeV transmission. Understanding the dynamics of flying fox populations, their interaction with horses, and the subsequent risk to humans is crucial in managing and mitigating the risks associated with this deadly virus.

Diagnosis and treatment

Diagnosis and treatment of HeV are crucial steps in managing the infectious disease and preventing further transmission. Here is a detailed look at how HeV is diagnosed and potentially treated:


  • The diagnosis of HeV is typically confirmed through laboratory tests, including Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and serology, which are standard methods for detecting the presence of the virus.1,3
  • A more rapid diagnostic method has been developed, known as a low-resource rapid Hendra test. This test utilizes a simple sample processing protocol followed by reverse transcription isothermal recombinase polymerase amplification (RT-RPA) combined with lateral flow detection (LFD) technology, providing results in as little as 30 minutes.6 This rapid test can be a game-changer in early detection and containment of the virus, especially in resource-limited settings.


  • While there is not a definitive treatment for HeV, ribavirin has been suggested as a potential treatment option, although its efficacy remains uncertain.1
  • The real hope in the treatment of HeV lies in a monoclonal antibody known as m102.4. This antibody has shown potential in early trials involving 40 healthy human volunteers.6 Moreover, the monoclonal antibody therapy has been used under a compassionate use protocol, demonstrating a potential pathway for treatment.5
  • Although experimental treatments and vaccines are in development, none are widely available yet, indicating a critical area of research and development to combat this deadly virus.5

The development of rapid diagnostic methods and potential treatments like monoclonal antibody therapy are steps in the right direction towards managing and eventually overcoming the challenges posed by Hendra virus.


Preventing the transmission of HeV is pivotal in managing the risks associated with this deadly pathogen. Below are comprehensive preventive measures that can significantly mitigate the risk of HeV transmission:

  • Vaccinating Horses: A cornerstone in the prevention of HeV spread is the vaccination of horses. The Hendra virus vaccine has shown efficacy in acting as a robust barrier to the transmission of the virus from horses to humans.5,6 However, it is important to note that, as of now, there is no vaccine available for humans, which underscores the significance of other preventive measures.6
  • Avoiding Contact with Ill or Potentially Infected Horses: Steering clear of ill or potentially infected horses, especially during outbreaks or the birthing seasons of flying foxes when viral shedding is at its peak, is highly advisable.1,3,6 Moreover, it is essential to maintain good hygiene practices around horses at all times, given that infected horses can shed the virus a few days before exhibiting any symptoms.
  • Implementation of Biosecurity Measures: The adoption of biosecurity measures is crucial in curbing the spread of HeV. These measures encompass proper hygiene practices, wearing protective clothing, and regular cleaning and disinfecting of horse facilities.4 In scenarios where close contact with a sick horse is unavoidable, wearing appropriate personal protective equipment to prevent exposure of the skin, eyes, nose, and mouth to the infected horse's body fluids is imperative.
  • Personal Hygiene Measures: Individuals should avoid kissing horses on the muzzle, particularly if the horse appears to be ill. It is also advisable to cover any open wounds or abrasions on exposed skin before interacting with horses and to thoroughly wash hands with soap and water, especially after handling a horse's mouth or nose and before eating, smoking, or touching the face. In the event that a horse's body fluids or manure come into contact with unprotected skin, immediate washing of the affected area with soap and water is essential.
  • Public Health Education: Disseminating information about the risks associated with HIV, its transmission dynamics, and the significance of preventive measures is vital in reducing the risk of HIV transmission. Public health education plays a pivotal role in fostering awareness and promoting preventive behaviours.4

Through a synergistic approach encompassing vaccination (for horses), avoidance of contact with infected horses, stringent biosecurity measures, public health education, and personal hygiene practices, the risk of HeV transmission can be significantly curtailed, thereby enhancing the overall safety and health of both humans and animals.

Recent cases and outbreaks

The narrative of HeV continues to unfold with multiple spillover events occurring in Australia, involving 107 horses with 87 confirmed cases, showcasing the ongoing threat posed by this virus.6 Although human infections are rare, they carry a significant weight of severity, often proving to be fatal when they occur.1,3,6 The summary of human cases of Hendra virus infection, updated as of 28 March 2022, reflects the ongoing monitoring and reporting of cases, indicating a sustained effort to keep tabs on this lethal pathogen.6

The initial outbreaks were primarily confined to Australia, but the potential for the virus to emerge in other regions looms due to the wide distribution of its flying fox reservoir.2,5 The sporadic nature of outbreaks coupled with a high mortality rate underscores the importance of continuous surveillance, research, and global awareness to better understand, combat, and prevent the spread of this lethal virus.4 The narrative of HeV is a stark reminder of the intricate interplay between humans, animals, the environment and the necessity for a harmonious co-existence to mitigate the risks associated with zoonotic pathogens like HeV.


HeV emerges as a severe zoonotic disease that primarily targets horses but also holds the potential to leap to humans with potentially fatal consequences.1,3,4 The narrative of HeV serves as a stark reminder of the complex interplay between humans, animals, and the environment, underscoring the necessity for a harmonious co-existence. With a high fatality rate in horses and a significant mortality rate in humans, HeV is a formidable pathogen that commands our attention and concerted efforts towards prevention and control.6

The transmission saga unfolds with bats, particularly flying foxes, as the primary cast, passing the virus to horses, which in turn can transmit it to humans through contact with infected bodily fluids. The symptoms in humans, manifesting about 9 to 16 days post-exposure, range from mild flu-like manifestations to severe respiratory or neurological symptoms, making early detection and intervention crucial.1,3,6

Currently, the most effective measure against Hendra virus disease hinges on prevention, which encompasses avoiding contact with an infected or potentially sick horse and vaccinating horses.1,5,6 The Hendra virus vaccine for horses has proven to be a solid step in halting the spread of the virus. Additionally, the implementation of biosecurity measures and public health education are paramount in mitigating the risk of HeV transmission, underlining the importance of awareness and vigilance.4,6

The quest for a cure or a vaccine for humans is ongoing, with some promise shown in treatments like ribavirin and monoclonal antibody m102.4, albeit in the early stages of trials.1,5,6 Until a robust human vaccine or treatment is developed, our best allies in the fight against this deadly virus remain awareness, vigilance, and preventive measures. The tale of Hendra virus underscores the urgency of continued research, public education, and preventive strategies to safeguard both human and animal lives from this deadly foe.


  1. Yuen KY, Fraser NS, Henning J, Halpin K, Gibson JS, Betzien L, et al. Hendra virus: Epidemiology dynamics in relation to climate change, diagnostic tests and control measures. One Health [Internet]. 2020 Dec 21 [cited 2023 Sep 26];12:100207. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7750128/
  2. Gazal S, Sharma N, Gazal S, Tikoo M, Shikha D, Badroo GA, et al. Nipah and hendra viruses: deadly zoonotic paramyxoviruses with the potential to cause the next pandemic. Pathogens [Internet]. 2022 Nov 25 [cited 2023 Sep 26];11(12):1419. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9784551/
  3. Annand EJ, Horsburgh BA, Xu K, Reid PA, Poole B, de Kantzow MC, et al. Novel hendra virus variant detected by sentinel surveillance of horses in australia. Emerg Infect Dis [Internet]. 2022 Mar [cited 2023 Sep 26];28(3):693–704. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8888208/
  4. Wang J, Anderson DE, Halpin K, Hong X, Chen H, Walker S, et al. A new Hendra virus genotype found in Australian flying foxes. Virol J [Internet]. 2021 Oct 13 [cited 2023 Sep 26];18:197. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8510678/
  5. Geisbert TW, Bobb K, Borisevich V, Geisbert JB, Agans KN, Cross RW, et al. A single dose investigational subunit vaccine for human use against Nipah virus and Hendra virus. NPJ Vaccines [Internet]. 2021 Feb 8 [cited 2023 Sep 26];6:23. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7870971/
  6. Pollak NM, Marsh GA, Olsson M, McMillan D, Macdonald J. Rapid, sensitive, and specific, low-resource molecular detection of Hendra virus. One Health [Internet]. 2023 Feb 10 [cited 2023 Sep 26];16:100504. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10288022/
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Elena Paspel

Master of Science in Engineering (Digital Health) - Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia

Bachelor of Laws - LLB (Hons), London Metropolitan University, UK

An experienced professional with a diverse background spanning law, pricing, and eHealth/Digital Health. Proficient in copywriting, medical terminology, healthcare interoperability standards, and MedTech regulations. A strong foundation in scientific research methodologies and user experience research supports the creation of compelling content for the biopharmaceutical, CROs, medical technology, and eHealth sectors.

Proven expertise in driving product vision, synthesizing complex information, and delivering user-centric solutions. Adept at streamlining workflows and processes, and drafting documentation and SOPs. Always open to collaborations and eager to connect with like-minded professionals.

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