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New virus may unlock Hendra mysteries

By Pat, 16 August 2012 News

Cells affected by viruses.

Cells affected by Hendra virus (left) and Cedar virus (right). Hendra virus is much more effective at fusing cells together (as indicated by the red circles) and spreading the infection.
Image credit: Gary Crameri/CSIRO

Viruses are the cause of a number of diseases. The flu, chicken pox and most common colds are just a few examples of diseases caused by viral infections.

While they may seem familiar, there is still much we don’t understand about viruses. For example, many bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, but few medicines are able to treat viral infections and these are rarely used.

Some viruses only affect particular species, but these viruses can evolve and jump to infect different species. This is what happened with swine flu a few years ago. The virus that causes swine flu originally affected pigs, but then started infecting humans.

Hendra and Nipah viruses – known as Henipaviruses – are two closely related viruses from fruit bats. Both viruses can infect humans and other animals. They are some of the deadliest viruses known, with mortality rates of over 70%.

While Nipah virus has only been reported in humans in South Asia, Hendra virus is native to Australia. There have been a number of Hendra outbreaks in Australia since 1994, with the most recent in 2011. These outbreaks have caused deaths in both humans and horses. Hendra virus is still poorly understood and it is not known why it is so dangerous to humans.

Until recently, Hendra and Nipah viruses were the only known Henipaviruses. Researchers from CSIRO and Biosecurity Queensland have recently identified a new Henipavirus, which they have called Cedar.

Ferrets and guinea pigs are two animals that are severely affected by Henipaviruses, however the research shows that they don’t get sick when infected with Cedar.

By comparing the genome of the Cedar virus with Henipaviruses, scientists may be able to identify the genes that make Hendra so dangerous to humans and horses. This information could lead to scientific discoveries that save lives.

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