Hendra virus (HeV) is a zoonotic paramyxovirus causing neurological and respiratory disease with high mortality rates in horses (75%) and humans (57%). Discovered in Queensland, Australia in 1994, it sporadically spills over from flying foxes (Pteropus spp.) to horses and from horses to humans. While outbreaks significantly impact the equine industry, they additionally propagate fear and misinformation amongst horse owners about flying foxes, leading to calls for more radical flying fox management approaches, including dispersal and culling. This study investigates the knowledge, risk perception and attitudes of horse owners towards flying foxes as reservoirs of HeV to identify knowledge gaps and misconceptions, while informing effective communication strategies and policy development.
Data presented here are part of the ‘Horse owners and Hendra virus: a longitudinal cohort study to evaluate risk’ (HHALTER) project. Five online surveys at six-monthly intervals were administered to horse owners between November 2012 and December 2014 to assess changes in their knowledge, perceptions and attitudes on a range of HeV related topics, including flying foxes and their management. Additionally, the study monitored changes in risk mitigation practices, including uptake of horse HeV vaccination.
Overall, 1,449 horse owners participated in at least one survey. Over half (57%) of the respondents of the fifth survey (N= 580) reported seeing flying foxes nearby or on their horse property, but only 30% of these perceived them as a current health threat to their horses. Furthermore, the majority of respondents (73%) agreed that flying foxes play an important role in the environment. Further ongoing descriptive and regression analysis will be presented that explore relationships between these perceptions, demographic information and the subsequent uptake of biosecurity practices and vaccination.
The findings of this study will be used to advocate sustainable flying fox camp management strategies and to ensure protection of these endangered species.