Increasing cases of North Queenslanders being bitten or scratched by bats has prompted the Townsville Public Health Unit to warn people to avoid contact with the animals.
Public Health Physician Dr Steven Donohue said 135 people in North Queensland had been treated last year after contact with bats, mainly flying foxes.
Dr Donohue said all bat scratches and bites required treatment, including vaccination, to prevent a fatal infection with Australian bat lyssavirus (ABL), which is very similar to rabies. There have been three cases of human infection due to ABL, all in Queensland and all fatal.
Of 63 sick bats rescued and tested in Cairns last year, nine were positive for ABL. Even healthy-looking bats may be infected with the virus. People trying to help a bat are likely to be bitten or scratched.
“You wouldn't pick up a snake, and you should never touch a bat,” Dr Donohue said. “They can bite through towels and even leather gloves. Leave it to the experts.
“Trained bat carers are vaccinated against rabies and have the right protective equipment. Always call them to rescue a sick bat.”
Dr Donohue said ABL could be transmitted via bat bites or scratches, or through exposure of the eyes, nose or mouth to bat saliva. Around 300 known potential exposures to ABL are reported in Queensland each year and, while treatment should start as early as possible after a bat bite or scratch, it is still beneficial later, as infection can take years to develop.
Workplace Health and Safety Queensland advises that at-risk workers include veterinarians and their staff, zoo workers, wildlife officers, bat rescue and rehabilitation carers, fauna surveyors, bat scientists, electrical workers who remove bats from powerlines, laboratory personnel who handle bat tissues or live lyssaviruses, and any other person who has occupational contact with bats. A person will not be exposed to ABLV risks merely by working near a bat colony.
PCBUs have a duty to manage ABLV risks by ensuring that only people who have current rabies vaccination have contact with bats and by providing the information, training, instruction or supervision needed to protect people from ABLV risks.
Personal protective equipment must be provided to and worn by at-risk workers. Fruit growers are also advised to use small aperture safe netting to minimise bat entanglements.
If you are bitten or scratched by a bat or exposed to bat saliva through the eyes, nose or mouth:
- immediately wash the wound with soap and water
- if available, apply an antiseptic such as Betadine after washing
- if bat saliva has got into your eyes, nose or mouth, flush the area thoroughly with water
- contact a doctor to arrange anti-rabies immunisation, ideally the same day.
Australian bat lyssavirus is not related to Hendra virus - Hendra is not known to have ever been transmitted directly from a bat to a human.
For more information visit www.health.qld.gov.au or call 13 HEALTH (13 432 584).
For bat carers or rescue volunteers in your local area, ring 1300 ANIMAL.