With the start of the bat breeding season, NSW Health has urged people not to approach or handle injured bats and flying foxes to avoid the risk of exposure to potentially fatal lyssaviruses.
So far this year, more than 300 NSW residents have been given rabies post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) following high-risk exposures to potentially infected animals. About one-third 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 Communicable Diseases Branch, said there had been three bats confirmed with the potentially fatal lyssavirus in NSW this year.
“We are concerned that with the start of the bat birthing season, in October and November, young and miscarried pups may be on the ground, prompting people to pick them up or attempt to rescue them,” 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, is fatal.
“There have been three cases of lyssavirus in humans in Australia – all were in Queensland – and all three people died.”
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 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.
“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.”
When a bat is injured or in distress, do not attempt to rescue it. Contact the experts at WIRES on 1300 094 737.
For more information, visit: http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Pages/Rabies-Australian-Bat-Lyssavirus-Infection.aspx
For your Local Public Health Unit, phone 1300 066 055.