Lyssavirus Look but don’t touch

by Dr Deb - the travel doctor - 25th Feb 2013

The tragic story of the young child in QLD dying from lyssavirus makes all parents shudder. My thoughts are with his family at this terrible time.

The hysterical calls for culling bats, however is not the the answer to preventing a recurrence of this aweful event.There is an old adage: Do not touch the wildlife. Look but don’t touch. This an is especially important lesson for children.

Australia is a great country but the wildlife should be left alone. Snakes, spiders, flying fox, microbats, blue ringed octopus, cone shells can kill. Bee stings can sometimes be fatal. Even domestic dogs can be dangerous.

About Lyssavirus

Australians are generally unaware of lyssavirus, as the disease has only recently been found in the country. Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABL) was first discovered in 1996. It is very closely related to the rabies virus found in other parts of the world. The viruses (ABL and classical rabies) are so similar, that vaccination against rabies prevents a person getting sick from Australian Bat Lyssavirus. There have only been two other cases of lyssavirus in Australia, in 1996 and 1998.This is NOT a common problem.

Many more persons die in Australia from snake bites, but we do not have hysterical demands for the killing of all snakes.

Unlike snakes, Bats almost never approach humans, but they may get tangled in nets or barbed wire, and sometimes persons want to help rescue them. This is NOT a good idea. Look but don’t touch. Call the 24 hour Bat Rescue Hotline (0488 228 134).

Only a very small proportion of flying fox or bats carry the virus (about half a percent of all the bats) but unless you know what you are doing, and are pre vaccinated, it is like playing Russian Roulette if you handle these animals: In the same way that not all snakes are deadly but it is highly recommended to avoid contact with snakes.

You cannot catch lyssavirus from being near a bat. You will only catch lyssavirus from a bite or a scratch. It is never a good idea to handle urine or faeces from any animal unless wearing gloves, but bat poo is not going to transmit lyssavirus. If you don’t bats or touch flying fox, you have nothing to fear.

Bats work hard for us.

Uneducated persons who advocate shooting all the bats, or driving bat colonies away from the cities, do not realize that bats are an essential part of the Australian ecosystem. These animals work hard for us pollinating the forests of eucalyptus and melaleuca trees, and eating insects. Countries that have destroyed their bat populations need to spend a great deal of money and chemicals to do the job that the bats do for us – for nothing. Bats only need to be left alone to do their job. In Queensland there are many dedicated volunteers working 24 hours a day to assist the bats do this important job, ( for which incidentally they receive no government financial assistance.). The volunteers even have a facebook page for their poster bat, Gilbert.

Rabies viruses are deadly

Lyssavirus (named after Lyssa, the greek god of frenzy ) are RNA viruses. These viruses mutate easily, and can infect different species – hence the family of lyssaviruses can infect bats, dogs, cats, skunks, humans etc. Rabies kills about 50,000 persons per year worldwide, mostly in the developing world. There is a world program which aims to help control rabies.

RNA viruses are some of the most dangerous infectious disease threats to mankind: Influenza, AIDS and Measles are caused by RNA viruses.

Symptoms and Treatment

If an infected animal bites a person, the rabies virus enters the wound. The virus is found in the animal’s saliva so that any broken skin is a concern – rabies can be contracted from bite, scratch or even a lick. The virus travels along the nerves, enters the brain. The first symptoms may be a burning sensation at the bite site. The virus causes the brain to malfunction; trouble swallowing, fear of water, paralysis and coma. Only a handful of persons have ever survived rabies disease without vaccination. Rabies vaccination must be undertaken before any symptoms develop. Once symptoms develop it is usually too late. There are 6 reported rabies survivors: These persons received a special treatment whereby the patient is placed in a coma to allow the brain to better weather the infection. The first person to survive was from Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA, so the treatment is known as the Milwaukee protocol. So far, it has been tried at least 35 times and has only been successful in six.

So remember, when it comes to wildlife, whether you are in Australia or overseas: Look but don’t touch.


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Megabats and Microbats: Lyssavirus Look but don’t touch
Lyssavirus Look but don’t touch
Megabats and Microbats
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