Old Bats and New Diseases Most people don’t like bats.

Even if they’ve never seen one. Ancient myths, horror movies and the very idea of furry-faced creatures with teeth gliding silently through the night are enough to make people happy never to see one. Despite the bad press, bats play an important role in controlling insects and agricultural pests, and pollinating many tropical plants. Unfortunately, these pro-bat facts are overshadowed by the bat’s growing reputation as a source of new and deadly viruses. Even before the 2002 SARS outbreak ended, scientists started looking for the source of that mysterious respiratory virus. The first suspect was the civet cat, but it proved to be little more than a transient carrier of the virus. The real source turned out to be horseshoe bats. In parts of China, both civet cats and horseshoe bats are menu items so it is likely the SARS virus jumped from bats to people and bats to cats in the crowded live animal markets that pass for grocery stores in Asia. Finding the SARS virus in bats was not a complete surprise. Earlier work in Australia and Southeast Asia uncovered two previously unknown viruses that were traced back to fruit bats. In Queensland, Australia a mysterious virus called Hendra killed 16 horses and infected three people during 1994-1995. Two of them died. The three were infected—not directly by bats—but after handling fluids from infected horses. Hendra virus causes respiratory illnesses with severe flu-like symptoms. The virus is still around; it killed another Australian horse in June of this year. A related virus called Nipah is also transmitted by bats. This particular virus was discovered after a 1999 outbreak in Malaysia that killed about a hundred people. The Nipah


virus was transmitted to humans after close contact with infected pigs. In humans, the virus causes encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), which can lead to comas, seizures, and respiratory failure. Outbreaks of Nipah virus in Bangladesh during the last two years have been especially worrisome because of the high death rate (92%) and evidence suggesting direct bat-to-human and human-to-human transmission of Nipah virus. Bats also may be the natural reservoir of the infamous Ebola virus. After Ebola outbreaks in West Africa killed large numbers of people, gorillas and chimps during 2001-2003, scientists started another search for the host of this deadly virus. Antibodies to Ebola virus and some Ebola gene sequences were found in bats. These findings suggest that certain types of African bats are the natural home of this deadly virus. Even without these exotic new viruses, bats still present a threat to people because of an old, familiar virus: rabies. Last fall in Brazil, rabies-infected vampire bats caused an epidemic— not to mention widespread panic—after biting thirteen hundred people and killing twenty-three of them. Most of the deaths were among children. Despite the Dracula image, vampire bats don’t leave two neat punctures on peoples’ jugular veins. The bite is inconsequential and often goes unnoticed. That’s bad news when the bite is from a rabid bat. Unless treatment is started immediately rabies is fatal. Maryland doesn’t have any vampire or horseshoe bats, and I haven’t noticed any fruit bats dangling from the trees in my backyard. Still, we do have other types of bats and they do carry rabies. Their droppings also may be a source of rabies and other pathogens, including a fungus that causes a respiratory infection called histoplasmosis. Bat droppings, and concerns about histoplasmosis, forced the closing of a barn dance in Williamsport, Maryland last August.


But bats are not entirely to blame for killing horses and canceling barn dances. We share some of the blame by creating conditions that help pathogens hop from bats to other species. In the U.S., for example, more effort should be made to bat-proof our homes. In developing countries where more people are moving into areas traditionally inhabited by bats, efforts have to be made to educate people about handling bats or collecting foods previously handled by bats. The deadly Nipah virus outbreaks in Bangladesh may have been fueled by young boys collecting fruit—including fruit partially chewed by bats—to pulp into fruit drinks for sale in area villages. According to Andrew Dobson writing in Science magazine last fall, “the Nipah outbreaks there often follow the trails of these bicycle-born salesmen.” There are about a 1,000 species of bats. Despite their numbers and diversity, surprisingly little is known about how they resist viruses that are so deadly to other mammals. No doubt, as we learn more about these winged creatures of the night we also will discover many more scary viruses.