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Ryan's Rave: No more Hendra vacs for us, thanks

This article first appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Equestrian Life. To see what is in our latest issue, please click here.

Lyssavirus, Hendra, Bat

Some horse owners are concerned about the side effects of the Hendra virus vaccine - Heath Ryan is one of them.



By Heath Ryan

WHEN THE HENDRA Vaccine first became available in Australia, we at Ryan’s embraced it and vaccinated all our horses. This was a very big decision because we have some 300, including broodmares and youngstock, which represented an extra cost of $50,000 a year. It was a cost that seriously compromised the commercial aspect of our horse business. However, for us the fact that Hendra could potentially kill our staff and other people was a more urgent consideration, so we went forward and embraced a Hendra inoculation programme. This meant the horses needed Hendra injections every six months.

Also at this time, Equestrian Australia (EA) was promoting the Hendra inoculation programme, so we at Ryan’s:

1.    Prioritised human life and inoculated our horses against Hendra.

2.    Were really exposed to the costs and the impact on our business, which has taken a lifetime to put together.

3.    Experienced firsthand the side-effects of the vaccine and the worsening side-effects of the six-month boosters as we got further into the programme. There does seem to be an accumulation effect over time from ongoing booster shots which affects the horses’ wellbeing negatively.

4.    Accepted the initial advice from the scientists and academics as they uncovered Australia’s first exotic disease capable of killing people. Of course, in those discovery days and in the ensuring scramble to develop a vaccine, our knowledge about the Hendra virus was very little. Today we know a lot more about Hendra, but still there is a lot to learn.

5.    I noted that EA moved to make Hendra vaccination compulsory for all of its members. I do feel the EA did the right thing in terms of “duty care” to the membership, especially with litigation in mind. The membership voted this policy down, which I also think was correct and the perfect outcome! One of the few times democracy worked perfectly! I will explain later.


Heath and Utopian Cardinal

Heath Ryan and Utopian Cardinal.

© Roger Fitzhardinge

So what happened that we at Ryan’s changed sides?

1.    More and more information about Hendra became available and people stopped dying. What’s more, no one died unless they were a veterinarian or assistant doing an autopsy on a horse that had died as a result of Hendra. In other words, no horse owners, no riders, no kids, no spectators, not anyone other than vets doing an autopsy have ever contracted Hendra. In my view, you as a horse enthusiast have a 100% guarantee that as long as you do not do anything crazy you cannot catch Hendra. It is impossible for a normal horse person to catch Hendra. That is now a statistical fact! You get the academics and scientists saying that you cannot say that, however, today that is a doomsday saying. It is possible that a huge meteorite will crash into planet Earth tomorrow and destroy us and our planet. That’s not going to happen. This is the classical case where science and reality have experienced a divergence. Reality is the truth and, in this case, science will catch up as more and more information becomes available. So what about our vets? Well, the last vet to die as far as I am aware was in 2009. Now that the vets are aware of Hendra they have adopted bio-security measures that now mean no vets are dying. No vets should ever die again from Hendra. These people, however,  are on the front line, and if your vet happens to be a little paranoid about Hendra, fair enough, you need to look after your vet. Anyhow, the point is, now that the Hendra virus has been identified and we have some knowledge about it, people are no longer dying. That single fact completely changes the situation.

2.    Second point why we at Ryan’s changed sides: The horses’ welfare. Theoretically the Hendra vaccine should surely save your horse’s life should he or she contract Hendra. Probably not! Everyone will remember the EI outbreak in Australia. The EI flu was brought in by a stallion called Schnitzel who had been properly inoculated before coming into the country. Just because a horse is inoculated does not mean the horse cannot catch the flu bug or the virus. It just means the horse does not really display symptoms or get sick. They can, however, still shed the virus and pass it to other horses, or in the case of Hendra, to an unsuspecting veterinarian. As far as I know there is no proof of this yet with Hendra, but this is certainly how it is with other diseases. What we do know is that, if your horse contracts Hendra the horse has to be put down by law, even if your horse is up to date with all the Hendra shots. So it is possible that you do not save your horse from Hendra even if it is properly inoculated. This scenario opens a huge can of worms. Some vets will only do emergency colic surgeries on horses up to date with their Hendra vaccinations. Well, it may be possible to be up to date with vaccinations and for the horse to still to have Hendra. What we do know is that Hendra can be managed and the vets need to stick to bio-security measures even with vaccinated horses.

3.    So what about side-effects from the Hendra vaccine? These side-effects are very real despite reassurances to the contrary from the vaccine producers. Almost always we at Ryan’s experienced a spike in temperature, often going through 40°C. Temps that high are bad and have the potential to adversely affect the horse’s feet with things like pedal bone rotation, which will seriously stop a competition horse. High temperatures will also adversely impact on stallions and their sperm, and mares and unborn foals. High temperatures are bad and systematic use of bute (phenylbutazone) to combat temperatures is also not a good thing. Bute was once a human drug but was struck off the list with over 100 bad side-effects recorded. In horses,  bute can cause heart attack and induce stomach ulcers, so not a great long-term answer. Other side-effects from the Hendra vaccine include: – horses stiff in the neck and unable to put their heads down for two or three days, developing white spots in their coats, lying down and not wanting to stand up for several hours, standing still and not really wanting to move for several days. I  have spoken to lots of people about these side-effects and there is no doubt that horses have died as a result of the Hendra vaccine. There is a lot of documentation of these adverse effects and those owners have in many cases reported them to veterinarians. The denial from these people is deafening and puzzling – why can’t the facts be tabled in the public domain?

4.    Most vets are doing what they think is right and trying to protect their own families, which is completely understandable, but the irrevocable truth is that this Hendra vaccine does induce very unpleasant side-effects in some horses, including death.  It is very interesting to note that some high-profile equestrians are claiming they have never had one single horse experience any side-effects. Then, in the next breath, they say that they administer bute whenever they give their horse a Hendra shot, or they only give the Hendra shot when the horse has some time off. Really? Does anyone give bute or time off when they give their horse a tetanus shot?

The side-effects from the Hendra vaccine are very real for everyone.

These side-effects are a serious consideration in terms of the horses’ wellbeing, and we at Ryan’s are abandoning the Hendra inoculation programme. Also, the fact that an inoculated horse may still be able to contract Hendra, and then by law has to be put down, makes the vaccination programme completely void in terms of being in the best interest of your horse.

Finally, just commenting on the EA and its attempt to make the Hendra Vaccination programme compulsory. I think EA did respond to this Hendra situation quite quickly, which is a good thing and prioritised the membership, as in people over and above the horses. Very good from a duty-of-care point of view and a litigation point of view. Through the democratic process, the membership rejected this EA policy, which in hindsight was an accurate response to reality. I personally cannot take any credit for the membership voting this way because at the time I had elected to vaccinate my horses with the Hendra vaccine.

Having been on both sides of the fence and knowing firsthand about how the Hendra vaccine impacts on my horses, I do believe that vaccinating for Hendra as we know it today will become obsolete.


This article first appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Equestrian Life. To see what is in our latest issue, please click here.



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