Hendra Virus case reaches conclusion after three years

Horse Shoe Clinic. Photo Paul Braven / The Observer
Horse Shoe Clinic. Photo Paul Braven / The Observer Paul Braven GLA200216HORSE

A FORMER Bundaberg vet has pleaded guilty to one count of failing to meet safety requirements while treating a horse that later tested positive for Hendra virus.

The bat-borne Hendra virus can pass from flying foxes to horses and then on to humans, causing severe illness, often resulting in death.

Dr Luke Annetts fronted the Bundaberg Magistrates Court yesterday, nearly three years after he took a sample of blood from the horse on a property at South Kolan in March 2014.

The court heard the animal had a long history of pneumonia or pneumonia-related respiratory illness.

In March 2014 Dr Annetts was treating the horse, but saw no signs or symptoms of Hendra virus and at the request of the horse's owners, put the animal down.

Dr Annetts' defence barrister, Tony Glynn, said as his client euthanised the horse he noticed some nasal discharge, which although he didn't believe was Hendra related, "thought he should get checked".

The court heard that just sending a blood sample for Hendra testing prompts a raft of protocols under Workplace Heath and Safety legislation.

Dr Annetts warned the owners of the horse that the person burying the animal would need to take precautions and should not remove the halter, which he thought was sufficient.

Mr Glynn said his client recognised he should have done more in retrospect, which is why he was pleading guilty to exposing David Zunker - who buried the horse - at risk.

Mr Glynn said his client's actions were "not in any way a significant breach".

Further testing did not result in anyone who came in contact with the horse returning a positive result for Hendra virus.

Dr Annetts was placed on a recognisance bond of $7500 for 12 months and ordered to pay court costs of $1079. No conviction was not recorded.

Under the conditions of the bond, Dr Annetts will only have to pay the $7500 if he breaches the Act in the next 12 months.

Dr Annetts was one of the first three Queensland vets to be charged under the Workplace Health and Safety Act in relation to Hendra virus for breaching their duty of care.

In March last year Dr Matthew George Morahan from the Gold Coast pleaded guilty, while in September Brisbane-based Olympic equestrian team vet Janine Francis Dwyer was found guilty.

Equine Veterinarians Australia executive officer Jeffrey Wilkinson said it was a shame all three veterinarians were ever prosecuted and forced to endure the long, drawn out court process.

"The signs and symptoms of this deadly virus are so vague and variable," he said.

"The situation the veterinarians found themselves in could have happened to any veterinarian at any time in Queensland.

"It's been a great shame and it's coming up for three years since Dr Annetts was first charged and that's a long, long time for this matter to finally be put to it's conclusion."

Mr Wilkinson said there was "no doubt the prosecutions have discouraged younger vets from looking at taking up equine veterinary positions in the state of Queensland" and it was difficult to get both young and experienced vets to come and work in Hendra endemic areas, he said.

Mr Wilkinson said the message from the EVA for horse owners in Hendra endemic areas, including Bundaberg, was simple.

"Get the horses vaccinated with the Hendra vaccine," he said.

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