Spillover

PALE HORSE

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The virus now known as Hendra wasn’t the first of the scary new bugs. It wasn’t the worst. Compared to some others, it seems relatively minor. Its mortal impact, in numerical terms, was small at the start and has remained small; its geographical scope was narrowly local and later episodes haven’t carried it much more widely. It made its debut near Brisbane, Australia, in 1994. Initially there were two cases, only one of them fatal. No, wait, correction: There were two human cases, one human fatality. Other victims suffered and died too, more than a dozen—equine victims—and their story is part of this story. The subject of animal disease and the subject of human disease are, as we’ll see, strands of one braided cord.

The original emergence of Hendra virus didn’t seem very dire or newsworthy unless you happened to live in eastern Australia. It couldn’t match an earthquake, a war, a schoolboy gun massacre, a tsunami. But it was peculiar. It was spooky. Slightly better known now, at least among disease scientists and Australians, and therefore slightly less spooky, Hendra virus still seems peculiar. It’s a paradoxical thing: marginal, sporadic, but in some larger sense representative. For exactly that reason, it marks a good point from which to begin toward understanding the emergence of certain virulent new realities on this planet—realities that include the death of more than 30 million people since 1981. Those realities involve a phenomenon called zoonosis.

A zoonosis is an animal infection transmissible to humans. There are more such diseases than you might expect. AIDS is one. Influenza is a whole category of others. Pondering them as a group tends to reaffirm the old Darwinian truth (the darkest of his truths, well known and persistently forgotten) that humanity is a kind of animal, inextricably connected with other animals: in origin and in descent, in sickness and in health. Pondering them individually—for starters, this relatively obscure case from Australia—provides a salubrious reminder that everything, including pestilence, comes from somewhere.

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In September 1994, a violent distress erupted among horses in a suburb at the north fringe of Brisbane. These were thoroughbred racehorses, pampered and sleek animals bred to run. The place itself was called Hendra. It was a quiet old neighborhood filled with racecourses, racing people, weatherboard houses whose backyards had been converted to stables, newsstands that sold tip sheets, corner cafes with names like The Feed Bin. The first victim was a bay mare named Drama Series, retired from racing and now heavily in foal—that is, pregnant and well along. Drama Series started showing signs of trouble in a spelling paddock, a ragged meadow several miles southeast of Hendra, where racehorses were sent to rest between outings. She had been placed there as a brood mare and would have stayed until late in her pregnancy, if she hadn’t gotten sick. There was nothing drastically wrong with her—so it seemed, at this point. She just didn’t look good, and her trainer thought she should come in. The trainer was a savvy little man named Vic Rail, with a forceful charm, swept-back brown hair, and a reputation for sharp practice in the local racing world. He was “tough as nails, but a lovable rogue,” Vickie was, by one judgment. Some people resented him but no one denied he knew horses.

It was Rail’s girlfriend, Lisa Symons, who took a horse trailer out to collect Drama Series. The mare was reluctant to move. She seemed to have sore feet. There were swellings around her lips, her eyelids, her jaw. Back at Rail’s modest stable in Hendra, Drama Series sweated profusely and remained sluggish.