Australian Bat L yssavirus (ABLV) was discovered in June 1996. The virus has been found in all 4 species of Australian flying foxes and several species of microbats. Those coming into contact with bats should assume that any bat species can potentially have the virus, and so take all prescautions to avoid being bitten or scratched. ABLV is considered fatal in humans, as it is in bats, but It is preventable.

It is not to be confused with Hendra Virus.

Do not handle bats unless you are vaccinated for rabies, and if you are bitten or scratched you are advised to wash the wound with soap immediately, and then urgently see your doctor. Wash the wound under running water for 5 minutes. Those already vaccinated may require a booster and those not vaccinated may require a course of 5 injections plus immunoglobulin. This will depend partly on whether the bat is available for testing.

ABLV is rare in bats. Studies of ABLV in randomly caught wild flying foxes and microbats have shown no ABLV, and so the incidence is considered to be well under 1% in the wild population. The media usually misinterprets this as 1%. The incidence in sick, injured and C3 (bats that have bitten or scratched humans) bats is naturally higher, especially those showing neurological signs. If you are approached by a bat, be especially cautious. This is very unusual behaviour for a bat unless it is a human-raised orphan.

The first bat we encountered with ABLV was an orphan sent to us from Port Douglas in December 2008. Young Camden had been in care with us for 1 month before he showed signs of the disease. Like 70% of flying foxes with the disease, Camden presented with the passive form, not the ferocious or aggressive form. He fell to the ground in his cage that he shared with 34 other young flying foxes. He was weak in the back legs and had a weak swallow, and steadily deterioraated over the next 24 hours. He was submitted for testing tand came back positive.

Janine and a colleague Carol de Jong flew up from Brisbane to administer a series of 3 vaccinations on days 0,7 and 28.   Blood samples were taken each visit to establish their immune status. The vaccinations began on 18 January, 11 days after Camden died.

Operation Camden swung into place, designed and implemented by Dr Janine Barrett. The decision was made to vaccinate Camden’s 34 companions for ABLV. We’ve been told this is the first time in the world that there has been a post-exposure treatment of wild animals. It required approval from the Chief Veterinary Officer of Australia, and Chief Veterinary Officers of each state. The alternative would have been to euthanase the other orphans, or keep them in quarantine for a much longer time.

On 9 March we got the final blood results back indicating that all but one orphan (Finlay) had obtained the necessary titre response of 2.0 after the second vaccination. We then took blood again from this one bat, a measure of his titre after the third vaccination, and he cleared the 2.0 threshold. Humans are considered to be immune on a 0.5 result but Dr Barrett was being cautious by setting a 2.0 level.

Like Hendra Virus, ABLV has been around for a very long time, long enough to have evolved into strains that are different in microbats and flying foxes. Hence when 2 horses died from ABLV in May 2013, scientists were able to determine that the horses had been infected by a microbat.

There have been 3 human deaths from ABLV since its discovery in 1996. You are more likely to die from lightning strike, dog attack, car jacks or choking on foods than you ever are from bats. Education is the key. You don't touch snakes, you don't swim with stingers or crocodiles, and you don't touch bats. Really, you don't touch any wildlife - they don't want to be touched.

If you see a sick or injured bat, or a lone bat, call a vaccinated bat carer urgently.

For more information look for the ABLV Bat Stats on the Australian Wildlife Health Network website.

For information about rabies vaccination for the prevention of ABLV.

An ABL poster from Queensland Health.