When seven-year-old Port Lincoln schoolgirl Jemma Fiegert was bitten by a microbat her mum Kylie’s gut feeling was to go to the hospital.

Key points:

  • Australia has many species of flying foxes and microbats that can carry the Australian bat lyssavirus
  • Three people have died of the virus in Australia, all in Queensland, and anyone who is bitten or scratched should seek medical help
  • Authorities are warning the public to be aware of the 25,000 bats in Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens during the WOMAD and Fringe festivals

She was right to be concerned — bats can carry the deadly Australian bat lyssavirus (ABL) and the consequences could have been dire.

Jemma had been bitten while collecting her bag at the end of the school day after the bat flew into a window and fell onto her hand.

“There were four tiny little pinpricks on her hand,” Mrs Fiegert said.

“You could barely even see that it was there.

“The doctor said to me if she got sick before having the vaccine there was no cure for the Australian rabies, which is called the lyssavirus.

“That was a bit of a scary moment for me — I didn’t realise how dangerous it actually was.”

Treatment for a bat bite includes washing the wound thoroughly with soap, an immunoglobulin injection and four doses of a vaccine over a two-week period.

“It was pretty frightening, especially when the doctor came in and said they were trying to source (the immunoglobulin) because the Royal Adelaide didn’t have it either,” Ms Fiegert said.

A bat takes flight on a sunny day.

The grey-headed flying fox pteropus poliocephalus, found in the Botanic Gardens Adelaide, can carry lyssavirus.(

Supplied: Brad Leue

)

Small chance, ‘awful’ consequences

University of Adelaide Wildlife and Conservation medicine senior lecturer Wayne Boardman said there had been three fatalities in Australia since 1994.

A man operating on a bat.

Dr Boardman working with a grey-headed flying fox.(

Supplied: Wayne Boardman

)

“The chances are incredibly small, but the consequences are awful if a person were to get the lyssavirus from the bat,” he said.

“Normally flying foxes or little microbats don’t come into contact with people at all … so this was a pure misadventure — it hit a window and had fallen down.

“The chances are, in those circumstances, that it’s probably not got the lyssavirus, because that was an accident.

“Whereas those bats, when they get infected with the lyssavirus, tend to be slightly more aggressive … they can bite and that’s the way it’s transmitted, through the saliva.”

A tiny bat showing its teeth.

Gould’s wattled bat is one of eight microbat species found on the Eyre Peninsula.(

Supplied: Alex Holmes

)

Virus kills bats too

Dr Boardman said the virus was rare in bats.

“They talk about a one per cent zero prevalence, which means that one per cent of the bats might have antibody response to the bat lyssavirus,” he said.

“But that doesn’t mean to say they are specifically infected at that time — probably the chances of the bat having the virus is much lower that the one per cent.”

He said lyssavirus was the only viral disease in bats that infected the creatures.

“A lot of the other viral diseases – hendra and coronavirus in China – they don’t cause any disease in the bat,” Dr Boardman said.

The extent of the disease in microbats was not known.

“Bats might get infected and then die on their own in the middle of the bush and you never see them,” Dr Boardman said.

“We are very careful of telling people not to touch them — the consequences are dire when people get it, so we so we want to avoid it at all costs.”

South Australia’s Health Protection director Michaela Hobby saidthe state recorded nine bat exposures last year that required precautionary treatment, including the rabies vaccine and rabies immunoglobulins.

Warnings have been issued to beware of bats in the city’s parklands during the Fringe and WOMAD festivals this month.

The Department of Environment and Water’s Jason VanWeenan said while the likelihood of coming into contact with bats was low, grey-headed flying fox numbers in Botanic Park had risen to 25,000.

Schoolgirl’s lyssavirus scare ends well as WOMAD, Fringe attendees urged to beware of bats
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