Bat bites and scratches in heat-stressed Hunter, New England reach unprecedented levels

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January 14, 2019 06:33:13

New South Wales health officials have issued a bat attack alert for the Hunter New England region with a person bitten or scratched every second day, including two by animals infected with a virus similar to rabies.

Public Health Physician David Durrheim says the number of bites or scratches inflicted on people in the region in such a short period of time is unprecedented.

“The seven that we have had in the last two weeks is certainly higher than we’ve seen in comparative periods,” he said.

“Two of the bats submitted for testing have actually had lyssavirus infection, so it is a real concern for us and for those people who have been exposed.

“A few of these were bat carers but there were a number of members of the public, and they are the people we are really concerned about because they haven’t been vaccinated.

“They are unprotected and they don’t know how to use personal protection equipment safely.

“They really are at risk of a potentially fatal infection.”

Hot weather to blame

Extreme heat is being blamed for the flying foxes and bats becoming ill and falling from trees.

“Hot weather has resulted in some bats suffering ill health and getting caught in wires or other strange places, and people trying to assist them have unfortunately got scratched or bitten,” Dr Durrheim said.

Scientists have long urged people to exercise caution when approaching flying foxes in soaring temperatures.

The New South Wales environment department is aware of the risks and has published guidelines on dealing with the animals in sweltering conditions.

“As flying foxes experience heat stress, they are likely to exhibit a series of behaviours indicating [the] progressive impact of that stress,” the department said.

“These include clustering or clumping, panting, licking wrists and wing membranes, and descending to lower levels of vegetation or to the ground.

“Black flying foxes tend to start dying above about 42 degrees Celsius, and grey-headed flying foxes above about 43C.”

Good intentions could turn deadly

Doctors say the health risk potentially posed by bats cannot be ignored, as they can carry the rabies-like virus Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV).

“The clinical symptoms are almost just as awful as rabies, and once the disease starts it can’t really be effectively treated, and almost everyone dies,” Doctor Durrheim said.

“People are actually compassionate towards these animals and don’t realise that handling them can cause more harm, both for the animals and themselves.”

Fiona McBurney from the group Wildlife Aid Upper Hunter says experts must be called in to deal with bats in distress.

“[It’s important to] get the right people involved — our bat carers are immunised and trained to handle these bats,” she said.

“If you see a distressed bat, call a wildlife carer to help with the situation and they will cover them with towels to keep them restrained.”

The Office of Environment and Heritage sais people must meet strict protocols before they can become a bat rescuer.

“A requirement of being licensed is that you must be immunised against ABLV and you will need to source and wear suitable protective equipment and clothing,” the department said.

“If groups intend to take action in heat events, Office of Environment and Heritage encourages prior planning to ensure that the group has the resources necessary to meet the standards.”

Health risk warnings not new

Residents, councils and politicians in the Hunter Valley and New England regions have previously raised concerns about the potential health risks from bats in as many as a dozen colonies across the region.

Their fears were raised at a 2016 Senate inquiry into fruit bats.

A Murrurundi resident who did not want to be named made their concerns clear.

“The large amounts of droppings and urine from the bats is creating an incredible stench and health risk,” the resident said.

“We are also a very large horse community, which is of major concern to owners due to Hendra virus.”

Cessnock Council was made aware of fears about tens of thousands of bats roosting near a local school.

“Concerns over the health risks associated with flying foxes were raised with council … the primary school vegetable patch was unable to be used by school pupils,” the council said.

Action on back of senate inquiry

The concerns of residents about flying foxes across the region have been backed up by the Member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon, who two years ago called for a bat cull.

A Senate inquiry was then held into managing flying foxes and their impacts, with the committee taking a raft of concerns on board.

“The growing propensity of flying foxes to roost in urban areas has caused more frequent interactions between the species and Australia’s human population,” the committee said.

“The location and size of these camps can have notable economic, social and health impacts on residents, business owners, and the agricultural community.

“These impacts have increasingly affected residents’ quality of life, and put pressure on local government to take action.”

The Committee recommended that the Department of the Environment and Energy “develop a suite of education resources regarding flying fox ecology, behaviour, environmental significance, health impacts, and management options.”

Topics:

environment,

health,

weather,

rural,

singleton-2330,

newcastle-2300,

tamworth-2340,

nsw



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