Call for caution over handling bats due to risk of deadly virus

Call for caution over handling bats due to risk of deadly virus

Public health warnings about coming into contact with bats should be stepped up to prevent the risk of exposure to a potentially deadly virus, according to a new study.

Human contact with bats is still common according to Professor Alison Jones, an internationally renowned toxicologist and Acting Executive Dean of the University of Wollongong’s Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health.

The study, 'Cross sectional survey of human-bat interaction in Australia: public health implications', published in BMC Public Health, also revealed that bats are most likely to be handled when they are sick or injured – and therefore pose a higher risk to humans of infection with Lyssavirus.

Professor Jones said a survey was carried out by a research team from the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Population Health and the University of Wollongong using a telephone survey across NSW to determine the frequency of bat exposures amongst adults in Australia’s most populous state, NSW, and to explore reasons for handling bats as well as people’s knowledge of warnings.

“This study shows, despite public health warnings not to handle bats because of the risk of transmission of Lyssavirus, human touching contact with bats is common, particularly for sick or injured bats,” said Professor Jones, who co-authored the study.

“We need to understand further why this is the case in order to target intervention strategies to better meet the public health prevention needs of people - especially males, in rural communities. This has particular relevance to the work of our Graduate School of Medicine, which serves rural and remote communities in particular.”

There have been three recent deaths in Australia due to Australian Bat Lyssavirus, which if it is transmitted to humans has clinical signs and symptoms identical to rabies.

“We are working really hard with public health professionals to try to prevent any more deaths from this cause,” Professor Jones added.

“My main message to the public is please do not handle bats – please leave that to trained bat handlers.”

Media contact: Professor Alison Jones is available for interview on  + 61 2 42215151, +61 409 218 255 or

Background notes: Lyssavirus, or Australian bat lyssavirus, is a virus that can be transmitted from bats to humans, causing serious illness, which results in paralysis, delirium, convulsions and death (death is usually due to respiratory paralysis).  

The virus was first identified in 1996 and has been found in four kinds of flying foxes/fruit bats and one species of insect-eating microbat. Evidence of previous infection has been found in blood tests from a number of other bat species. It is therefore assumed that any bat in Australia could potentially carry the virus. The behaviour or appearance of a bat is not an accurate guide to whether it is carrying the virus.

Transmission of the virus from bats to humans is thought to usually be by a bite or scratch, but also potentially by being exposed to bat saliva through the eyes, nose or mouth (mucous membrane exposure). Lyssavirus is unlikely to survive outside the bat for more than a few hours, especially in dry environments that are exposed to sunlight.

There is no specific treatment available for Lyssavirus. In all potential exposures to ABLV (bites, scratches, mucous membrane exposures), seek medical advice immediately, even if you have been vaccinated.*

*Source: QLD Health