AUSTRALIAN BAT LYSSAVIRUS (ABL)
What is it?
ABL is a virus related to rabies (also known as mad dog disease or hydrophobia). The symptoms and course of ABL infection is virtually identical to rabies.
When was it discovered?
It was first discovered in Australia in 1996, and there are two separate strains, one carried by megachiropterans and the other by microchiropterans. There have been two deaths recorded as a result of infection by ABL. One death was the result of being bitten by an infected Black Flying Fox while the other death was from a Yellow Bellied Sheathtail Bat.
How does it work?
The virus lives in the salivary glands of an infected animal and enters the human body via broken skin (cuts, scratches and bites) or mucous membranes (eyes, mouth, nose etc). It then makes its way through tissue to nerve ends in muscle tissue, spreads up the nerve to the brain where it multiplies rapidly and exits via the nerves to other tissue - especially salivary glands where it multiplies dramatically, ready to spread to the next host by biting. Once the virus enters the nerves, it is protected from the body's defences (antibodies and scavenger blood cells).
The incubation period (the time before the virus enters the nervous system) can be anything between four days and 19 years. The second person who died from Lyssavirus was bitten two years prior to developing symptoms. The virus therefore remained dormant all that time, and had she received the vaccine her death would have been prevented. Due to the very nature of their work, bat carers and handlers are more likely to encounter infected bats and for this reason vaccinations are an essential pre-requisite prior to handling bats.
Protection and Prevention
The first thing to remember is do not touch any bat, unless you are a vaccinated bat handler. If you do get bitten or scratched by a bat, wash the site thoroughly for five minutes with soap and water, apply an iodine based lotion to the site. You must notify your local public health unit or GP as soon as possible as you may need to receive the post-exposure vaccine. The antibodies will prevent progression of the disease if the animal was infected with ABL. Unfortunately for the animal, testing of the brain tissue is the only method to establish the presence of Lyssavirus which requires that the animal be surrendered and euthanased.
See Queensland Health's Fact Sheets for further information.