How Australian Bat Lyssavirus changed it all

Who Ya Gonna Call When It’s A Bat

How Australian Bat Lyssavirus changed it all – the tragedy and travesty Louise Saunders

Bat Care Brisbane is a species specific organization committed to the welfare, education and conservation of both Megabats and Microbats. We have a growing membership and our rescue service covers 3,000 sq km. of the Greater Brisbane Region.As a newly formed wildlife group we have been in operation for just one year, during which time it has been a challenge to build membership and find support among our volunteer base for the difficult task of administration. When you recruit for carers and rescuers they are usually animal lovers and want the hands on with less of the things that keep an organization strong such as grant writing, data keeping, secretarial and treasury, education and the necessary “big picture” project development. As we grow we hope we can attract the necessary people for both the rescue and care as well as the administrative side to maintain a dynamic group.Our volunteers perform daily rescue and rehabilitation services for the community, we also attend display days, give talks to community groups and visit schools to spread the good messages about the importance of living with bats. We house and maintain 3 education flying-foxes especially to give people an up close and personal experience. With help from Gilbert, Jackie and Monique, their charismatic appeal can help change attitudes at every opportunity.

Most rescues do not have fairytale endings. It’s a good day when we can release a bat back to the wild. Carers often say it’s not fair, so little damage, yet flight ability is lost. The damage to fine wing bones and membranes by barbed wire and backyard fruit tree netting is intolerable but on the increase within our community. During winter months and when food is scarce we see a reliance on Cocos Palms. These palms are attracting bats to their eventual death. The majority of our orphans come from electrocuted mothers. We are slowly educating the public to report them thereby saving the baby.

So many of our rescues if not reported early enough end in tragedy. Bats try to free themselves from barbed wire by biting the wire. It is common to find them severely dehydrated with teeth and gums irreparable. It is never simple to remove a bat from barbed wire. The wire must be cut from the bat not the bat cut from the wire.

Backyard fruit tree netting is a killer. If wrists are severely entangled with netting blood supply loss can cause the entire surrounding tissue to die with finger bones popping through the end of the wrist. Being a rescuer is a tough job and carers need to steel themselves to the suffering they try to relieve.

So when the orphans are born, the joy and pleasure they give counteracts all the horror of rescue. Rearing an orphan is an amazing experience. Many carers say it changes their lives. Flying fox orphans are easy to care for and bond quickly to their human mother or father. The care duration is also a plus as they are ready to go to creche by 4 months of age. They integrate well if they are socialized and dehumanized properly.

Flying-foxes face a frightening future. Their numbers are on decline nationally, mostly due to habitat loss. But perhaps their greatest threat of all, is ignorance and an ever present plethora of misinformation.

There are 3 species of flying-fox living in the greater Brisbane region:

  • Black flying fox
  • Grey-headed flying fox
  • Little red flying fox

The more nomadic Little Red can travel several hundred kilometres in several days.

Researchers believe flying-foxes are becoming more urban, for more reliable food sources, protection from shooting and they can use rivers and street lights to navigate their way around the suburbs.

Flying foxes generally travel up to 50km each night to find food. This makes the Brisbane flying-fox colonies important for the pollination and seed dispersal of melaleuca wetlands and rainforest remnants throughout the region.

With 27 camp sites across Brisbane this is possibly the highest concentration of bats per sq km than any other region in Qld. Gold Coast region have 9 camp sites and Sunshine Coast have 11 sites both covering vast areas.

Therefore it stands to reason we will have the greatest injury and mortality rates as South-East Qld develops – industry using barbed wire, local councils insisting commercial properties use native vegetation for landscaping, people wanting to grow their own fruit and land being cleared for housing and industry. Unregulated urban sprawl encroaching on flying fox camp sites will add to the pressure they are under if adequate buffer zones are not put into place or more importantly not retaining existing ones.

1n 1996 bold front page headlines stated ‘BAT KILLS MUM’. From that time on, wild inaccurate information about a newly discovered virus was effective in desensitizing generations of Queenslanders to the welfare of bats. With the discovery of Australian Bat Lyssavirus, and the associated media frenzy, flying-foxes lost a lot of their supporters as many carers stopped caring for bats. Carers who continued to rescue and care were vaccinated to protect against contracting ABLV. It is now a requirement that all people who handle bats must be rabies vaccinated. Over 10 years on and the media is still unbalanced and desensitizing.

Our calls reflect caller sentiment and a large majority of callers believe all bats carry a killer disease. After years where researchers, zoologists, EPA, DPI and carers worked hard to improve the image of bats the new virus put bats back into dark age mentality as diseased vermin and pests once more.

We firmly believe bats are being left to suffer and are persecuted due to the perceived belief that all bats diseased.

Australian Bat Lyssavirus – the rarest fatal disease in the world having only killed to 2 people in history.

Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABL) is a Rabies-like virus identified in bats.

ABL is rare in Australian bats – less than 0.5% of all free living bats may have the virus at any one time

If treatment is not sought when bitten by an infected bat – ABL maybe fatal to humans. Only two cases have ever been documented in Australia.

Infection occurs through a deep penetrating bite when bat saliva comes into direct contact with exposed nerve tissue.

Since vaccinations have been available no human has died.

Funding is not available to answer the many unanswered questions about ABLV

It is believed that Australian Bat Lyssavirus has always been present in Australian bats. It is in less than 0.5% of the entire free living population of bats, mega and micro. The infection rate in sick and injured is estimated at 6 – 15%.

Antibodies have been found in four species of flying-fox and it is assumed most micro-bat species. There are 2 variants of the virus in Australia, pteropid ABLV and YBST ABLV.

It is important to note that the host animal for the virus is not yet known. As a mammal to mammal virus other wildlife may not be inmune.

Only two human cases of ABLV infection have ever been documented. One from a Black Flying-fox and the other from a Yellow-bellied Sheath Tail bat. Infection is thought to occur by a deep bite, whereby live virus in an infected bat’s saliva comes into direct contact with exposed tissue. It has not yet been proven to be transmitted via a scratch yet 50% of all bats submitted and killed for testing are from scratch. There are also no guidelines for the severity of a scratch.

So who are you going to call?

Just like any other wildlife organization we have been working to establish a reliable and effective rescue and care base with support from RSPCA and National Parks and Wildlife. With the normal organizational commitments, as a group we have the added pressure of ensuring our carers are Rabies vaccinated and that they maintain safe antibody levels according to the Environmental Protection Agencies Code of Practice.

We have many gaps in our rescue service throughout the Greater Brisbane region. Recruitment of volunteers for bats is incredibly difficult. There is such a stigma attached to bats now, that anyone interested in joining can be discouraged by family and friends due to their fear of killer diseases. Cost is also a big factor.

Vaccination costs alone will cost a carer over $200.00 just to be able to touch a bat (which our subsidised price, they normally cost $370).Rescue gear with cages and equipment, fruit, veterinary drug costs and aviaries for rehabilitation work are all cost prohibitive. Then there are the travel costs, not only for the rescue but also to find veterinary help. Many vets are using the virus as an excuse not to treat bats and this has now become critical with only 2 vets across the region willing to go beyond euthanasia. Even with a critically injured animal we can be turned away without help. This places stress on the carer and indeed the poor suffering animal.

Desensitizing media, vaccination costs and the lack of veterinary assistance is making the rescue and rehabilitation task for our organization a strain. I hear the same sad story from other groups who care for bats right across the state of Qld.

Q Health media has been subdued for the past 2 years until drought severely affected wildlife across Brisbane mid 2007. Flying-foxes were dying of starvation in people’s backyards. When QH media changed focus we could only assume it was due to a greater anxiety than normal from the community towards dying bats.

During the months of May to June 2007 we received over 400 calls to the service. Most callers were afraid of disease. Unfortunately the majority called after bats had died from starvation, then they rang requesting we remove the dead bodies for fear of disease. It was after this event and during birthing season, a QH spokes person stated that ‘When bats attack you, when you are bitten or scratched the disease is fatal.’

We do not dispute that ABLV is fatal to humans if not treated but this media was partly false and misleading. Bats do not attack people and the Rabies vaccine is effective if you have been bitten or scratched by a bat. In 10 years since routine vaccination no one has died.

In a recent report put out by QH, during the year 2005-2006 there were 123 notifications of bats either scratching or biting a human, 52 bats were tested and only one of these tested positive. Of the 71 animals that were not available for testing, it must be assumed that QH administered post-exposure vaccine to those members of the public that were scratched or bitten. This potentially equates to a cost of around $71,000 in that year alone. That is without the cost of testing the 52 submitted animals, then administration, overtime and courier costs involved in testing the bat bodies.

So how much would it cost to develop an alternative non-lethal test for ABLV?

Victoria and NSW have a very different approach to C3’s, a bite or scratch. Animals are only required if neurological symptoms are detected. All members of the public who are bitten or scratched are automatically vaccinated.

We would prefer a much more accurate and balanced approach to media with some conservation values placed on bats.
Perhaps a coincidence – but within the last 6 months 3 permanent flying-fox camp sites have been attacked and destroyed in Mackay, Uki and Dulguigan. The perpetrators are believed to be nearby residents perhaps misled by killer disease media statements.

Bats need many of the same things that humans need – a good place to live, food to eat, etc. This means we come into conflict over these things, and usually the bats lose out.

We need to make an effort to live together! Use wildlife safe fencing, bat-friendly netting, plant native trees to help them survive and ask governments to further protect them and their habitat.

While everyone is sleeping bats are out doing their job – making forests.

Megabats and Microbats are superstars, no other wildlife does a service to the environment like they do! Help us to help them.

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