Matter of Public Importance
Mr THOMAS GEORGE
(Lismore—The Deputy-Speaker) [7.10 p.m.]: The Hendra virus continues to infect horses in Queensland and northern New South Wales. I raise this matter of public importance as a reminder of the risks surrounding Hendra virus and of the need for preventative measures to minimise the risk of infection of horses, humans and companion animals. The Hendra virus is now affecting most of the State, particularly the North Coast. The electorate of Lismore is filled with a mix of wonderful people who enjoy the benefits of regional living, including the joy of contributing to a thriving rural sector from their own little farms. Sadly, in the past six weeks a silent killer has emerged on the North Coast. It has claimed the lives of five horses, threatened families and caused widespread community concern.
Since 30 June the menacing Hendra virus has hit four properties on the North Coast. Situated close to the Queensland border, the Hendra virus is always a threat. However, this is the first year such devastating losses have occurred in the State of New South Wales. The first horse to die was on a quiet rural acreage near Wollongbar. The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries has a research station there and it has since provided the venue for a local disease control centre. Tragically, a second horse from the same Wollongbar property also became infected. Horses have also died at Macksville, Corndale near Lismore, and, most recently, at Mullumbimby. My immediate concern has been for the owners and families on these properties who have been affected by the virus. I am told they are coping with the loss of their animals as well as can be hoped.
I have personally spoken to two concerned owners. Some have also faced further testing of their surviving animals and themselves, not to mention the quarantining of their properties. The O'Farrell Government has been working around the clock to quickly provide expert support to them, including support from veterinarians and medical workers. The Minister for Primary Industries, Ms Katrina Hodgkinson, and her department are very involved in this difficult issue, because this disease can affect any human in close contact with an infected horse. The Government is doing everything possible to ensure that humans are not affected.
My second major concern has been that the disease does not impact the wider community. The Department of Primary Industries is leading the O'Farrell Government's disease response. It has established a State disease control headquarters at Orange and a local disease control centre at Wollongbar. Departmental veterinarians and support workers, the Livestock Health and Pest Authorities, and private industry are working under policies set by the Chief Veterinarian to contain the outbreaks. I pay tribute to Paul Freeman and his team at Wollongbar, who have done a tremendous job. Their communication to horse industries and the general public, as a key part of the response plan, has been critical. Public meetings were recently held at Wollongbar, Macksville and Mullumbimby. Almost 100 people attended the meetings held at Wollongbar and Macksville, and about 75 people attended the meeting at Mullumbimby.
Public information about the risks of the Hendra virus and how to reduce the risks has been the subject of a media advertising campaign. It has also been distributed in factsheets across the North Coast, and a comprehensive range of information is available on the website of the Department of Primary Industries. The latest newsletter, distributed by email to the hundreds of people and horse groups registered on the departmental website, provides an update on surveillance since June this year and information, including that 111 properties having tested as negative—they do not have the virus. That information puts the disease in perspective: whilst it is very serious, it is still rare. The Hendra virus mainly infects large flying foxes—fruit bats—and it can be passed on to horses. The only other animals to be infected by the Hendra virus in New South Wales have been horses and, in each case, the affected horse has been in or near a paddock containing a fig tree. Flying foxes were most likely the source of infection.
Since 1994 seven people and one dog—all in Queensland—have been affected after coming in close contact with an infected horse. There is no evidence of a human-to-human or flying fox-to-human spread of the virus, nor has there been any evidence of spread of the virus from a flying fox direct to a dog or cat. I repeat that the community is very concerned. Advice clearly states that to reduce the likelihood of infection horse owners should, first, protect their horse from flying foxes; and, second, observe good hygiene around their horse, monitor its health and contact a veterinarian if it gets sick. The Department of Primary Industries advises horse owners to take the following precautions in areas with flying foxes. First, remove horses from paddocks where fruiting or flowering trees have temporarily attracted flying foxes. If it is not possible to remove horses from such a paddock then horse owners should tape off the area under the tree.
Secondly, place feed and water containers under cover. Thirdly, do not place feed and water under trees, especially trees with fruit. Fourthly, do not use feed that could attract flying foxes, such as apples, carrots or molasses. I urge all horse owners across the State, not only those on the North Coast, to take this advice and act upon it. The New South Wales Department of Health advises people to always take the following precautions. First, cover any cuts or abrasions on exposed skin. Secondly, do not kiss a horse on the muzzle—especially if it is sick. Thirdly, use personal protective equipment to protect yourself from the bodily fluids of horses. Finally, if a horse suffers a sudden onset of fever and rapid deterioration associated with either respiratory or nervous signs one should suspect the Hendra virus.
Mr CLAYTON BARR
(Cessnock) [7.17 p.m.]: I lead for the Opposition on this matter of public importance. I applaud the member for Lismore for bringing this serious issue, which needs to be properly and cooperatively addressed, to the attention of the House and, more broadly, of the community. The Department of Primary Industries is to be commended also for its actions in tackling this virus. The outbreak of Hendra virus in northern New South Wales follows similar outbreaks in Queensland. Action must be fast and effective to prevent its widespread and crippling effects. In August 2007 equine influenza took a firm grip on the New South Wales equine industry. The disease seemed to have spread from a similar outbreak in Japan. The equine influenza outbreak infected 47,000 horses on 5,943 properties across New South Wales. The impact that had on industry, employment, families and their livelihoods is well reported and documented.
I place on record some important facts about our primary industries, not just equine industries. Our broader primary industries are worth more than $9 billion and account for almost 20 per cent of Australia's total exports. Employment in primary industries accounts for one in every 20 jobs in New South Wales. The equine influenza virus required fast and decisive action to prevent it from becoming a terminal event for equine industries. With other global diseases such as foot and mouth disease, mad cow disease and of course the Hendra virus, it is imperative that we in New South Wales remain in a state of readiness, and that requires good planning and foresight. New South Wales is currently well placed for the outbreak of many such diseases should they be found in our industries.
We have strong and vigorous research going on during times of both calm and crisis. We have a network of expert veterinarians, scientists and institutes constantly striving to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment. We have a biosecurity strategy that has as a foundation commitment the intent to work cooperatively with other State and Federal agencies, industry and local communities. We have a primary industries community that takes very seriously their responsibility to maintain vigilance and transparency. The primary industries community must, by nature, be willing to be open and honest, even when it may well impact on their own business and prosperity, because the decisions that they make can impact on a much broader community, well beyond their own fence line or bottom line.
Five key outcomes are being sought by the New South Wales' Biosecurity Strategy: to prevent the entry of biosecurity threats into New South Wales; to contain and eradicate biosecurity threats before they become established and spread in New South Wales; to effectively manage biosecurity problems to minimise their impacts in New South Wales; to ensure cooperation between the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries and other agencies, industry and the community to manage biosecurity threats and problems; and to maintain the capacity of the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries to manage biosecurity within New South Wales. This strategy describes an intention to deal with events exactly like the Hendra virus.
The Department of Primary Industries has done an outstanding job in reacting to the Hendra virus and in implementing the plan and strategy. In the past 12 months, under the previous Government, there were a number of suspected Hendra outbreaks and the plan was put into place time and again. At some later date, after testing, it was found that the cause was not the Hendra virus; but the practice, the effort and the preparedness were there. Now we have the outbreak of the Hendra virus the plan has been kicked into gear quickly, effectively and responsibly. There can be no doubt that this follows on from the millions of dollars that the New South Wales Labor Government put into research and preparedness for biosecurity. This work is now being continued by the new Minister and I commend Katrina Hodgkinson for her work in this area at this time.
I also hope that the current Government will not cut the funding to this important element of primary industries. While it might seem an easy thing to do and could go largely unreported and away from the major headlines—a soft target perhaps—the error could be catastrophic to families, communities, New South Wales and Australia. The Department of Primary Industries is to be commended for the various forms of information and education that it has quickly rolled out to affected regions and industries. There can be no doubt that New South Wales will withstand this disease because of the good work of the Department of Primary Industries and the funding afforded it by governments past and, hopefully, future.
Mr RAY WILLIAMS
(Hawkesbury—Parliamentary Secretary) [7.23 p.m.]: Tonight I speak not only as the member for Hawkesbury and the Parliamentary Secretary for Western Sydney but also as a former Australian Jockey Club registered racehorse trainer between 1985 and 2005 and as a person with a lifetime of experience in the thoroughbred racing industry. The Hendra virus was first detected in the mid-eighties following the passing of Vic Rail, the former trainer of the champion Vo Rogue, who died after contracting the Hendra virus, which was so named because of the location of his training establishment at Hendra. The only known carrier of that particular disease was the grey-headed flying fox.
The research that is currently being undertaken on behalf of both New South Wales and Queensland is led by Professor Martin Jeggo. Professor Jeggo contacted me last week because he was very, very interested in my thoughts in relation to the transfer of the disease from the grey-headed flying fox to horses, given that the transfer of the disease from horses to humans via saliva has already been established. To date, much of the research undertaken on the Hendra virus has been based on the theory that the virus is being transmitted from the flying fox to horses via faeces or by contamination with urine from the flying fox. I pointed out to Professor Jeggo that it was never my belief that a horse, especially a horse in training, would come into contact with another animal's faeces and that I firmly believed that the transfer of the disease would be in the same manner, through saliva.
The flying fox is a known carrier of the disease and it is a transporter of fruit from trees, as is often witnessed around my area in Bilpin—a flying fox will carry an apple some hundreds of metres before dropping it on the road or in the surrounding paddocks after consuming only a small amount of the fruit. If the fruit was carried in this manner around racing stables and was dropped in an area close to thoroughbred horses it is quite likely that the horses would nibble on the fruit and thereby contract the disease in the same way as humans contract the disease through horses.
Professor Jeggo has taken my theory into consideration. There have been some studies in the area and Professor Jeggo pointed out to me that a considerable amount of saliva is required to transfer the disease. So there is much research to be done. The point needs to be made that this disease was unknown until 1985 when Vic Rail passed away. Since then it has lain dormant until only some 18 months to two years ago when there was another outbreak of the disease. I believe that we can attribute the prominence of this disease to an increase in the numbers of flying foxes. Flying foxes have been treated as an endangered species. They should not be. Flying foxes have grown in numbers by hundreds of thousands, especially over the past decade. At one time the National Parks and Wildlife Service used to undertake regular counts of that particular species, but it has not undertaken a count since 2005.
The last person to undertake a count of flying foxes in 2005 was Patrina Birt, who recognised that the numbers of bats had increased by hundreds of thousands. Therefore, I state once again that these bats should not be regarded as an endangered species. The bats have grown to plague proportions, they are known to carry this virus and we must do something to control them. No-one likes to see any animal killed but every year we kill millions of kangaroos, our national symbol. Why do we do that? Because they would be at plague proportions and everyone would have a dozen or so in their lounge room if we did not cull them. The same can be said with flying foxes. If we do not take reasonable measures to cull some of these species of flying foxes this disease will continue and it could decimate the racing industry.
We have a problem with flying foxes in the Botanical Gardens and we have a significant problem with them in our orchards in the Hawkesbury area. Now this virus is being passed not only to horses but also to humans. It is about time that we woke up to ourselves and started to take into consideration that these animals are not an endangered species and that they need to be culled not only to protect our horses but also to protect human beings and canines.
Mr THOMAS GEORGE
(Lismore—The Deputy-Speaker) [7.28 p.m.], in reply: I thank the member for Cessnock and the member for Hawkesbury for their contributions this afternoon on this matter of public importance. The member for Cessnock mentioned equine influenza. The outbreak of that influenza gives an indication of what can happen in the horse industry, which has been highlighted by my very good friend the member for Hawkesbury. I agree with the member for Cessnock and the member for Hawkesbury that we need cooperation. This is not about warfare on flying foxes or fruit bats.
Many members in this place have communities within their electorates that have a problem with flying foxes or bats. In my area the grounds of a retirement village at Murwillumbah have been overtaken by flying foxes to the point where the residents cannot open their windows or go into their backyards. But nothing is being done about that. These elderly people are locked up indoors and they cannot even get fresh air through their houses. That is an example of what happens. We have heard time and again about the bat problem at the Maclean High School. A suggested solution I have heard is to shift the school.
Mr Jai Rowell:
Mr THOMAS GEORGE:
Shift the school. As I said the other day to the Minister, we now have a major problem. As the member for Hawkesbury said, this virus was unheard of in 1985 but look at the problem we have today. If we do not keep an eye on this virus it will become a major issue. We must take control of this problem and one way to do that may be to control the flying foxes or fruit bats. This problem needs the cooperation of everyone, not just the horse owners who cannot continue to put up with it. The horse owners, the community, the industry and the people who have been affected by this virus must work together. I thank the Premier and the Minister for the New South Wales and Queensland governments' combined contribution of $6 million towards research into the Hendra virus. That is a positive move and is part of the cooperation that has been called for by the member for Cessnock and supported by the member for Hawkesbury. Unless we have cooperation we will not bring this problem under control.
I created a bit of a laugh in the House earlier when I mentioned kissing a horse. We must remember that a lot of young people throughout this State keep horses as pets. Young people get very close to their pets and they may kiss the horse around the neck or otherwise come into contact with the horse's saliva, such as when putting on its bridle, or cleaning out the feed bins. Again it is a matter of highlighting this virus and raising awareness in the horse industry that horse owners right across New South Wales must be very conscious of the measures they need to implement to keep it under control. The horse that lost its life at Corndale was on a property where flying foxes just flew overhead. They did not even land on the property—
Mr Kevin Anderson:
They are a swarm.
Mr THOMAS GEORGE:
That is right. But some of their droppings must have fallen on this property on which a child's pony died. Everyone knows that it is a disaster when a child or an elderly person loses a pet, and it is something we do not want to face anymore. I thank the House for listening to this matter of public importance and I certainly ask for cooperation throughout the State to clean up the problem.
The House adjourned, pursuant to standing and sessional orders, at 7.33 p.m. until
Tuesday 9 August 2011 at 10.00 a.m.