Humans May Be At Risk From Two Deadly Viruses In Bats
November 20, 2013

Humans May Be At Risk From Two Deadly Viruses In Bats

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

A fruit bat population living in central Africa has been found to be infected with two deadly viruses that could make the leap to humans.

Researchers publishing a paper in the journal Nature Communications wrote that the “gregarious” bats cover a distance in central African that is about the same as from California to New York. They found that 34 percent of the bats had been infected with Lagos bat virus, a disease similar to rabies, and 42 percent are infected with henipaviruses.

The team tested over 2,000 bats in 12 different countries across Africa, measuring DNA from blood and tissue samples. They found that the bats were largely genetically similar, showing that they traveled and mated across the continent without any evidence of population subgroups or specific migratory patterns.

The African straw-colored fruit bat is able to live in roosts of over one million and can congregate near cities. The bats were previously known to be a reservoir for these viruses, but it was not known to what extent.

"We now not only know how widespread viral infections are in this bat population, but we also know much more about its population structure,” stated Professor James Wood, the study's senior author from the University of Cambridge's Department of Veterinary Medicine. “This new information indicates that the unique population of freely mixing bats across the entire continent facilitates the spread of the viruses. This has important implications for the monitoring of these viruses in order to prevent its spread to other animals, including humans."

Fruit bats are hunted for their meat in Africa, which could be an ideal way for these pathogens to cross over and infect the human population. Henipaviruses can be spread through contact with urine and feces as well. While there haven’t been any reported instances of the diseases in humans in Africa, the viruses have been detected in pigs in Ghana.

Henipaviruses have been known to cause fatal disease in humans, pigs and horses in southeast Asia and Australia. These viruses can cause respiratory problems, hemorrhages, edema of the lungs, and meningitis.

While the threat of these viruses crossing over to infect humans remains real, the researchers caution against taking drastic steps to eradicate the problems.

"Sometimes, a knee-jerk response can be to try and remove bats from urban areas via culling or dispersal,” Dr Alison Peel, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “However, there is evidence to suggest that actions such as this can stress the bats and lead to a greater risk of spill-over. The most appropriate response is ongoing studies and public awareness to avoid handling bats, and to wash the wound thoroughly if you are bitten by a bat."