Every year at this time, New South Wales (NSW) Health issues a warning about the risk of Lyssavirus as the bat breeding season begins in the region.
Health officials warn people not to approach or handle injured bats and flying foxes to avoid exposure to the potentially fatal Australian Bat lyssavirus, which is closely related to the rabies virus.
So far this year, more than 400 NSW residents have been given rabies post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) following high-risk exposures to potentially infected animals. About one-quarter had been bitten or scratched by a bat in Australia, while the others had come into contact with potentially rabies-infected animals overseas.
Dr Vicky Sheppeard, Director of NSW Health’s Communicable Diseases Branch, said five bats had been confirmed as having lyssavirus in NSW this year.
“We are concerned that with the start of the bat birthing season people may pick up or attempt to rescue young and miscarried pups that may be on the ground,” Dr Sheppeard said.
“Evidence of infection in several bats this year highlights the importance of avoiding bat bites and scratches. Lyssavirus infection can result in a rabies-like illness which is very serious and, if not prevented, fatal.
“There have been three cases of lyssavirus in humans in Australia – all in Queensland – and all three people died.”
Dr Sheppeard said the best protection against exposure to lyssavirus and rabies was to avoid handling any bat in Australia, and any wild or domestic mammal in a rabies-endemic country – including bats, wild or domestic dogs, cats and monkeys.
“You should always assume that all bats and flying foxes are infectious, regardless of whether the animal looks sick,” she said.
“Only people who have been fully vaccinated against rabies (which protects against all lyssaviruses), use protective equipment, and have been trained in bat handling should touch bats.”
Dr Sheppeard said if someone was bitten or scratched by any type of bat they should immediately clean the wound thoroughly for at least five minutes with soap and water, apply an antiseptic such as Betadine and seek urgent medical advice.
“A series of injections to protect against lyssavirus infection may be required and, if so, the first two need to be given as soon as possible. It is important you seek advice from your GP or local public health unit regarding treatment,” Dr Sheppeard said.