Reporter: Peter McCutcheon
Scientists still have unanswered questions about the deadly Hendra virus, like whether it is becoming more common and if it could be spread to other states outside of Queensland. But some scientists are confident fruit bats are partially responsible, and debate is under way over how to manage the flying mammals.
ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: To central Queensland where a funeral held today was a sober reminder of the threat posed by one of the world's deadliest viruses.
Veterinary surgeon Dr Alister Rodgers is the fourth person to have died from Hendra virus - first identified in suburban Brisbane 15 years ago.
Since then, there have been more than a dozen outbreaks and two confirmed cases just in the past few weeks. This has raised questions as to whether it's becoming more common and whether it could spread to other states.
Although scientists are still trying to find out more about the virus they're confident the source can be traced to fruit bats.
And this has sparked a major debate.
Peter McCutcheon reports.
PETER MCCUTCHEON, REPORTER: These Brisbane school kids have been let out of the classroom to learn more about their neighbours: a colony of 20,000 flying foxes has been living in this pocket of suburban bushland for decades.
LOUISE SAUNDERS, BAT CARER: You know about Batman but you've got Batwoman today.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Bat carer Louise Saunders is on a mission to improve the image of fruit bats.
Why do you think flying foxes get such a bad press?
LOUISE SAUNDERS: Well it's from the dark ages when vampires and horror movies and Hollywood ... Hollywood certainly have a lot to answer for.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: But not everyone shares this passion for the ubiquitous flying mammal.
RAY HOPPER, QLD SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE: This Government is putting bats before people and that's unacceptable.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Two recent outbreaks of the deadly Hendra virus believed to have been transmitted from horses to flying foxes have reopened a debate about how we should live with bats.
RAY HOPPER: You harass a community of bats and they'll move on. Continual harassment is the answer.
I think it would really be a strategy that firstly would have adverse consequences that people hadn't thought about - but it probably wouldn't work anyway.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: The link between Hendra virus and bats was discovered in 1996, two years after the first recorded outbreak of the deadly disease.
DR HUME FIELD, BIOSECURITY QUEENSLAND: It's a virus that's co-evolved with bats and it's circulated away happily in that little niche for a very long time.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Although apparently harmless to bats, Hendra is one of the world's nastiest viruses. It attacks the walls of blood vessels, affecting nearly every organ in the body.
Four people have died from the virus in 15 years, the most recent being that of veterinary surgeon Alister Rodgers whose funeral was held in Rockhampton today. Dr Rogers caught the virus from a horse he thought was suffering from snake bite.
DAVID LEMON, FRIEND: let us hope and pray that his death through Hendra virus will not be in vain and will bring about some sort of preventative action.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Despite this tragedy Hendra virus is very difficult to contract. It can't be transmitted directly from bats to humans and so far all recorded cases have come via horses.
But a vaccine for horses is at least five years away.
DR RICK SYMONS, QLD DEPUTY CHIEF VETERINARY OFFICER: I think the message is not that there's a magic bullet in a vaccine, that it's an endemic disease and there are ways of actually dealing with it today, and it is about hygiene, personal protective equipment, keeping horses away from bats.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Separating bats and horses is easier said than done. But the Queensland Liberal-National Opposition has come up with an idea.
So how would we harass the bats?
RAY HOPPER: Oh there's plenty of ways of harassing bats. You can spray them with water, noise - because they sleep through the day and they don't like being woken up.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Bats were already on the nose with many farming groups in Queensland particularly fruit growers angry about a recent Queensland Government decision to stop them from shooting flying foxes during harvest time.
And they believe the recent Hendra outbreaks justify a change in policy about a protected native species.
RAY HOPPER: The flying fox colonies that are near equine facilities we also called for them to be removed. Now, not hurt the flying foxes just harass them and move them on so as we can put a protection mechanism in place.
LOUISE SAUNDERS: It's just very much nonsense. I think we need to really concentrate more on giving flying foxes more of a buffer zone.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Louise Saunders is a botanical artist and president of Bat Carers Brisbane. She says bat harassment is not only cruel but counter-productive.
LOUISE SAUNDERS: They're getting hounded all the time because people don't understand that the more they hound them, the more the noise, the more the squabble and fighting in a colony. The less disturbance, the happier the bats.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: And happy bats, according to the latest research are less likely to carry the Hendra virus.
DR HUME FIELD: Nutritional stress and reproductive stress make it more likely that flying foxes will be infected.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Virus expert Dr Hume Field works with Biosecurity Queensland and led the investigation into last year's Hendra virus outbreak, which claimed the life of another veterinarian. He believes the emergence of new viruses from bats is related to habitat damage and growing urbanisation.
DR HUME FIELD: Both of those things result in them when you put them together, an increased likelihood of infection in bats under stress. And then if they're in an urban context, in an increased likelihood of exposure to the horses that people have with them in those areas.
The health of the natural system and the health of the livestock system and the health of the human system really all overlap and fundamentally are all one system.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: But apart from the science Queensland Primaries Industries department argues moving bat colonies is simply impractical.
DR RON GLANVILLE, QLD CHIEF VETERINARY OFFICER: We've got huge populations of fruit bats in Australia and even if you wanted to remove them that would be an impossible task anyway.
And if you try to shift them they are very mobile animals, they'll just shift from one place to another, then they'll come back again.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Bat biologist Les Hall adds another element to this complex problem. Scientists haven't established exactly how Hendra virus is passed from bats to horses, and Dr Hall says other animals may be involved.
DR LES HALL, BAT BIOLOGIST: We need to test a lot more animals, particularly rats, mice, cats, any of the animals that might be associated with horse stables, just to check what the levels of the Hendra virus might be in them.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: Hendra virus poses a difficult public policy dilemma. It's extremely rare but deadly - and not fully understood. But until the next scientific breakthrough authorities say there are practical steps that can be taken.
DR RON GLANVILLE: Really we're looking at a culture change, probably. In that these days, certainly in the risk areas, I think a vet treating any sick horse needs to be wearing a mask and goggles and gloves, cause that's the way to protect yourself.
And similarly horse owners, you know if you've got a horse that's a bit off-colour you need to take appropriate precautions.
PETER MCCUTCHEON: And everyone from bats carers to Opposition critics agree on the need for more research.
RAY HOPPER: We lost a vet two weeks ago, we’ve had four people die, we've had seven people catch this virus in Queensland.
So you're looking at about a 60 per cent death rate. That's unacceptable, unacceptable when it can be slowed down and when more funding can be put into research and maybe we can control this.