Sydney Morning Herald, May 4th, 1999

Going Down Under

Killer virus could reach Australia, says expert

By CRAIG SKEHAN, Herald Correspondent in Bangkok

Amid reports that the deadly Nipah virus has spread to dogs, cats and horses in Malaysia, despite the mass slaughter of nearly a million pigs in infected areas, an Australian scientist has warned that wildlife could carry the virus to other countries - even as far as Australia.

Dr Peter Daniels, who has joined efforts to stem the epidemic which has already killed more than 100 people, said: "There is no reason why a virus cannot move from one geographical area to adjacent areas." Pet owners in parts of Malaysia where the virus has been detected have been advised to have their animals tested, and a polo club where two horses with the virus were destroyed last week has been quarantined

A national testing program is continuing to identify infected farms in previously unreported areas of the country.

Dr Daniels, from the CSIRO's Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, is part of an international team of scientists working on the virus with Malaysian experts.

"We are acting on an assumption that this virus resides in a wildlife reservoir," he said.

A range of wild animals are being tested. Dr Daniels noted that bats and flying foxes constituted a particularly fertile source of viruses. Because these animals moved over great distances, there was a real risk they could carry viruses, including the Nipah virus, further afield.

Australia was not immune from the danger of Nipah, he said. Malaysian flying foxes travel to Indonesia and there is a variety of Indonesian flying fox which visits Australia.

He cited the cases of the hendra virus, which killed two men working with horses in Queensland in 1994 and 1995, and the lyssa virus which killed another two people in that State. One of them had come into contact with flying foxes and the other with insect-eating bats.

Malaysian health authorities have been criticised for being too slow to ascertain that it was an emergent virus which was killing humans in pig farming areas, rather than Japanese encephalitis, as first suspected.

However, Dr Daniels says much of the criticism is harsh, given the difficulty in recognising new viral strains and dealing with them.

While Malaysia's rainforests have shrunk, large-scale animal husbandry has spread, increasing the danger of viruses transferring to domesticated animals.

But such land-use changes have been going on for decades and scientists are still baffled as to why a new virus emerges at particular time. In areas of Malaysia where Nipah has struck, investigating scientists could be mistaken for astronauts, clad in special all-enveloping suits and carrying battery-powered breathing apparatus.

In the next stage, scientific committees around the world will pore over the collected data in an attempt to explain what has happened in Malaysia, and to advance efforts to tackle the worrying growth of emerging diseases and viruses.

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