Watch out for bites from bats, warn experts

By Liz Emmett 4 April 2013
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
The death of a child in Queensland has prompted a warning about the risks of contact with bats.

SCIENTISTS HAVE WARNED PEOPLE to steer clear of bats, after an eight-year-old boy died from Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) in Queensland in February.

The boy’s death marks the third reported incident of the disease in Australia, all of which have been fatal.

“Anyone who gets bitten or scratched by a bat or flying fox is at risk of this disease,” says Dr Clare Nourse, an infection specialist at the University of Queensland.

Boy dies of Australian bat lyssavirus

In the most recent incident, an eight-year-old boy was bitten on a family holiday to northern Queensland in December, and didn’t tell his parents.

Three weeks later, he began to suffer convulsions and a fever. After another two weeks, his neurological condition worsened and he eventually went into a coma.

ABLV sits under the same group of infectious diseases as rabies. The disease is carried in the saliva of an infected bat or flying fox. If a person is bitten or scratched, lyssavirus enters the body’s nervous system and travels to the brain.

Symptoms will emerge once the infection enters the brain, and could include fever, over-production of saliva, a fear of water, painful spasms through the body and, eventually, a deteriorating level of consciousness.

Preventative treatment for bat disease

Clare, who issued the warning at an Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases conference in March, says preventative treatment is essential following the event of a bite or scratch.

“If you are bitten, you must see a doctor so you can be issued with a preventative course of vaccinations. Vaccination is 100 per cent effective, but by the time you develop symptoms, it will be too late.”

Clare says the disease can take up to 20 years to reach the brain, so “even if you were bitten 10 years ago, you should still get the vaccine.”

Dr Anja Divljan at the Australian Museum in Sydney is concerned about the fear factor that could result from an official warning.

“It’s important the wider population knows about this serious risk but I don’t want to promote a negative image of these animals,” Anja says. “ABLV is not transmitted through droppings or urine, so you won’t get ABLV by walking under a flying fox colony for example, and the risk of being bitten and scratched by a sick animal is very small.”

Clare agrees the risk is small, however she says it’s “really important that people leave the handling of these animals to professionals.”