Last Friday in my Inspirations series I wrote about how horses have been part of my writing journey. Today’s post is a follow up to that – why I chose to write a novel based on an outbreak of the Hendra virus.
Those of you who aren’t horsey types may not know much about this disease. It’s a virus that is carried by flying foxes and can be transmitted to horses via secretions. Horses living in areas where there are flying fox colonies can be exposed when they eat grass, food or water that has been contaminated by bats. The virus can be transferred from horse to horse and in a couple of instances has been detected in dogs. Unfortunately it can also be transferred from horse to human.
The virus was first detected in a racing stable in the suburb of Hendra in Brisbane in 1994 when a number of horses became seriously ill. A horse trainer and 14 horses died during that outbreak. The following year a farmer in Mackay also died of the disease. There have been a number of outbreaks since then resulting in four human deaths, a further 3 people who contracted the disease but survived and around 80 horses have died. All the outbreaks have occurred in northern NSW or Queensland. A vaccine was developed and made available to the public in 2012 and the Department of Primary Industries has encouraged all horse owners to vaccinate their horses.
Although this all sounds pretty scary Hendra remains a very rare disease and with greater awareness the numbers of horses and humans at risk seems to have diminished.
The whole vaccination issue became – and remains – quite contentious within the horse community. Due to the deadly nature of the disease the search for a vaccine was relatively urgent and clinical trials were rushed. Before too long some horse owners who did choose to vaccinate (it was never made compulsory) complained of side effects, in some cases even horse deaths due to the vaccine itself. In addition, the cost of the vaccine was more than some were prepared to pay – especially with two initial doses and then six monthly boosters. Others felt the human safety factor outweighed the cost and the risk to their horses.
Hendra was a pretty hot topic there for a while. The close bond most horse owners have with their equine friends now had the potential to be lethal. My own initial reaction, living so far away from the ‘danger zone’ was to hold off on the vaccine, at least until further research was done. Sitting around a camp-fire one night at a Pony Club event I was shocked at how heated the discussion became. Some parents thought it was absolutely crazy not to get the vaccine, others talked of the profits being made by the pharmaceutical companies while a third group expressed concern for their horses should the disease travel further south.
This last idea got me wondering. What if it did break out in Sydney or on the south coast where we spend a lot of our time riding? What would happen? How would people react? How would it impact on those communities?
Fiction thrives on conflict and this issue was rife with it. My writing brain started to tick. Before long I’d developed a protagonist – a vet who worked for the Department of Primary Industries.
I wanted to set the story on the south coast but would an outbreak of hendra there be too far fetched? Luckily my publisher had a contact who was a vet involved in the outbreaks in Queensland with whom I was able to consult. He assured me that although the disease had so far only been detected as far south as Port Macquarie it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that it could spread further south. Wherever there are flying foxes it’s possible.
So I had a vet and a setting but there would need to be a lot more to the story. That’s a post for another day. But to wrap up, the hendra thread in Close To Home does create a huge amount of tension for the characters and leads to some interesting relationship developments, including a little romance, which I’ll tell you all about next week.
Close To Home is available now for preorder from Booktopia: Click here.