Help out bat study, but be careful

Letter to the editor

Posted: Wednesday, September 07, 2005

As a physician-scientist involved in research of viral infections transmitted from bats to humans in Southeast Asia, I have read the bat story involving David Tessler (Empire, Sept. 4) with great interest. He should be complimented for publicizing the very important ecological niche that these small maligned mammals fill worldwide. Little is obviously known about their lifestyle in Alaska. Do they migrate? How far? Do they carry some of the deadly viral diseases that we are studying in Asia? We do know that they carry the rabies virus in North America (including Washington state and British Columbia). Rabies is not necessarily deadly in this species as it is in most others, including man. Most recent human deaths from rabies have been due to unrecognized or ignored exposure to bat bites.

In Asia and Australia, we have the deadly Nipah and Hendra viruses, which are carried by bats. The Nipah virus caused over 100 human deaths in Malaysia and Singapore in one year. Bat rabies (in fruit- and insect-eating bats) may well have been present for decades in "rabies-free" Australia till a lady was bitten by a bat she nurtured, which later died of rabies. The virus was then found to be present in the bats of all Australian states.

The moral of this story is that persons who join the "Alaska Bat Club" and collect data on this important mammal should follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and, if likely to have frequent close contact, should even consider rabies pre-exposure vaccination. Do not handle sick or dead bats or those behaving "unbat-like". Have an expert collect the sick or dead bat and send it to the public health laboratory for testing. Any bat bite or exposure of mucous membranes (eyes, mouth, wound) to bat saliva should be reported immediately to the Public Health Department.

However, do not let these warning remarks frighten you from assisting Dr. Tessler in what he is planning to do. The risk of being infected is virtually nil if you use common sense and follow CDC guidelines.

Henry Wilde

Juneau and Bangkok

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