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African Fruit Bats Could Spread Viruses Across Continent

  • VOA News

Straw-colored fruit bats rest together at Berlin’s Zoological Garden. (Fritz Geller-Grimm)

Straw-colored fruit bats rest together at Berlin’s Zoological Garden. (Fritz Geller-Grimm)

Straw-colored fruit bats, found across much of Africa, carry two deadly viruses that could spread to people. While scientists knew the bats were carriers, a new study outlines the extent of the infection - a third of the bats are infected with a virus similar to the one which causes rabies, and 42 percent carry henipaviruses, which can cause a fatal disease.

Researchers with the University of Cambridge and the Zoological Society of London looked at blood and tissue samples from more than 2,000 bats in 12 African countries.

They found the animals were largely genetically similar, which means they travel and mix freely across the continent. Senior author James Wood, from the University of Cambridge, says that facilitates the spread of the viruses.

Fruit bats live in groups of more than 100,000 animals, and often congregate near cities. They are frequently hunted for meat, which can spread the pathogens to humans. Henipaviruses can also be spread through contact with bat urine or feces.

Neither disease has been reported in humans in Africa, and while the possibility of infection raises public health concerns, lead author Alison Peel warns that trying to remove bats from cities can actually increase the risk. She says, "The most appropriate response is ongoing studies and public awareness to avoid handling bats, and to wash the wound thoroughly if you are bitten by a bat."

The new research appears in the journal Nature Communications.
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