Psittacosis believed to be transmitted from horses to humans at Charles Sturt University Wagga

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Staff and students at Wagga's Charles Sturt University (CSU) have fallen ill after exposure to "horse chlamydia" on two separate occasions.

The worrying transmission of the illness “psittacosis”, which causes flu-like symptoms in humans, is believed to be a world-first.

In January this year, 13 students and staff suffered flu-like symptoms after exposure to a critically-ill foal, according to Professor Kristopher Hughes, clinical director of veterinary enterprises at CSU.

It followed an incident in 2014 where staff and students were exposed to an infected membrane, detailed in a recently-released report from authorities including the Department of Primary Industries, NSW Public Health Unit and CSU.

Two staff and two students fell ill following contact with the membrane during a three week clinical rotation in the reproduction clinic, with two admitted to hospital for four and seven days respectively. The aborted membrane was brought into the university three weeks earlier by a veterinary student who had been working at a local stud. 

The report concluded transmission of the respiratory disease following exposure to an infected foetal equine membrane at CSU in 2014 was “probable”. However, the investigation was unable to confirm whether or not it was psittacosis in the students and staff members in 2014, possibly due to antibiotic treatment. 

Professor Hughes said staff and students who handled the membrane in 2014 were wearing “full length overalls, protective footwear and examination gloves”. 

The second incident in January this year also prompted a review of safe work practices.

Professor Hughes said the university had established a critical incident response group to co-ordinate management of the outbreak in collaboration with the NSW Public Health Unit, Department of Primary Industries, University Biosafety Committee and the Division of Human Resources as soon as the cluster was identified. 

The investigation is ongoing, but if confirmed as psittacosis the outbreak represents an “unprecedented development in this emerging disease, with implications for equine breeding industries,” Professor Hughes said. 

The risk assessment and safe work practices for admission and handling of sick neonatal foals to the Veterinary Centre have been revised “with the addition of respiratory protection… and protective eyewear,” he said.