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Lyssavirus risk prompts warning from Australian health officials

With the start of the local bat breeding season, NSW Health is urging people to avoid contact with bats that could carry serious diseases.

Dr Vicky Sheppeard, Director of Communicable Diseases Branch, said 142 NSW residents have been given rabies post-exposure treatment this year after they were bitten or scratched by a bat in Australia.

Flying fox
Image/Video Screen Shot

”People should steer clear of bats at all times. Four bats were confirmed with the lyssavirus in NSW this year, and lyssavirus infection can result in a rabies-like illness which is very serious and, if not prevented, is fatal,” Dr Sheppeard said.

“Lyssavirus infected bats have been found in most parts of NSW, including in metropolitan Sydney. During the bat birthing season in October and November, we find people are more likely to come in contact with bats, as young and miscarried pups may be on the ground, prompting people to pick them up or attempt to rescue them.

“There have been three cases of lyssavirus in humans in Australia – all were in Queensland in 1996, 1998 and 2013 – and all three people died,” she said.

Dr Sheppeard said the best protection against being exposed to lyssaviruses is to avoid handling any bat in Australia, and any wild or domestic mammal in a rabies-endemic country. This includes bats and wild or domestic dogs, cats and monkeys.

“People should not touch bats as there is always the possibility of being scratched or bitten and being infected. Always assume that all bats and flying foxes are infectious,” she said.

“If someone is bitten or scratched by any type of bat they should thoroughly clean the wound for at least five minutes with soap and water immediately, apply an antiseptic such as Betadine and seek urgent medical advice.

“They may require a series of injections to protect against lyssavirus infection and the first two need to be given as soon as possible. It is important you seek advice from a GP or local public health unit regarding treatment.”

According to Queensland Health:

  • Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABL) is closely related to the rabies virus.
  • The best protection against being exposed to the virus is to avoid handling bats or flying foxes.
  • There is no known risk of contracting ABL from bats flying overhead, contact with bat urine or faeces or from fruit they may have eaten.  Living, playing or walking near bat roosting areas does not pose a risk of exposure to the virus.
  • A bat bite, scratch or mucous membrane exposure to bat saliva is necessary to transmit the virus. Usually bats do not approach humans, more commonly bat scratches or bites occur if someone is trying to ‘rescue’ an injured, sick or distressed bat.
  • It is recommended that for any person who has been bitten, scratched, or had a mucous membrane exposure to bat saliva that treatment be commenced as soon as possible.Treatment involves a course of vaccinations that are necessary to protect the person against ABL.

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