New South Wales (NSW) Health has urged people not to approach injured bats and flying foxes following three confirmed cases of the potentially fatal lyssavirus in NSW bats this year.

Flying fox
Image/Video Screen Shot

Over the past month, 32 people required rabies post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) following high-risk exposures to potentially infected animals. Five of the people had reported local bat exposures while the remaining 27 people had animal bites or scratches while travelling overseas.

Dr Vicky Sheppeard, Director of Communicable Diseases Branch, said NSW Health is concerned that as we come into the bat birthing season (October and November), young and miscarried pups may be on the ground, prompting people to pick them up or attempt to rescue them.  

“So far this year we have had three people who were bitten or scratched by bats that were later confirmed to have had the potentially deadly lyssavirus,” Dr Sheppeard said. 

“This 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, is fatal.

“There have been three human cases of lyssavirus in Australia (all were in Queensland) and all three people died.” 

Dr Sheppeard said the best protection against being exposed to deadly 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 avoid all contact with bats as there is always the possibility of being scratched or bitten and it leading to infection. You should always assume that all bats and flying foxes are infectious, regardless of whether the animal looks sick or not,” she said.  

“Only people who have been fully vaccinated against rabies, use protective equipment and have been trained in bat handling should touch bats.

“When a bat is injured or in distress, do not attempt to rescue it. Contact the experts at WIRES on 1300 094 737.

“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 as soon as possible, 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 your GP or local public health unit regarding treatment.”

Related: Lyssavirus warning expands to Pilbara