Bats not to be feared, but handled with care


A swooping bat can send brave souls running for the hills as these winged creatures remind many of Count Dracula. Their reputations have been dealt a further blow as many people believe that their bite will cause rabies.

While diseases in bats are a reality, only two people in South Africa and one in Kenya have been reported to have died from bat-related rabies infections in Africa.

They play an important role in the ecosystem and are often misunderstood. “However, we still need to understand which role they play in the transmission of diseases to humans and other animals,” says Wanda Markotter, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology at the University of Pretoria.

In the study she determined how rabies-related lyssaviruses carried by bats, occur and how they spread disease.
To determine this, studies needed to focus on where they live, population structure, how they come into contact with people and how the viruses they carry are able to adapt.

“Lyssaviruses can cause rabies and 14 infections belong to this group. Although classical rabies occurs in terrestrial mammals including domestic dogs, this virus has never been found in African bats. There are only two rare related lyssaviruses from bats that have been reported locally, namely the Duvenhage and Lagos ones. The Lagos virus occurs mostly in the larger fruit-eating bats and Duvenhage is associated with the smaller insectivorous species. Studies show that less than 1% are capable of transmitting rabies,” she points out.

“Rabies cases in South Africa are mostly caused by dog bites,” says Markotter, who serves on South Africa’s National Rabies Advisory Group. She explains that healthy bats will never attack or fly into people as they use a sophisticated echolocation system to navigate in the dark. We don’t have any vampire bats that feed on blood in Africa.

“They are natural hosts for many viruses, not only rabies,” she explains. “They can carry organisms which can cause illness, while not showing any signs of the infections themselves. Because bats occur in large colonies and can fly long distances, viruses can spread over huge areas.” Markotter says more work is required to understand if and how they carry and transmit diseases to people and animals.

It is also important to know how diseases are spread in order to avoid them. Bats carry these lyssaviruses in their saliva so you could be infected by a bite or scratch. Others present be spread by contact with body fluids such as saliva, urine, faecal matter and blood.
It is important to handle bats only if you have received training and use some means of protection. When handling them or entering bat roosts, contact with any body fluids should be avoided.

They are extremely important in our ecosystem because they pollinate flowers, disperse seeds and eat insects. We should therefore not exclude them from our environment and continue to protect them. We should also not be scared of bats since most of those encountered by the public will be healthy.



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