Answer by Diane Eager

Charters Towers is a town in northern Queensland, Australia. Many bats live in the town and surrounding district, but do the residents of Charters Towers need to fear catching Ebola from them?

For this to happen the bats would first have to harbour the Ebola virus, and then pass it onto people. Let’s consider the possibilities of both these occurring down under. We need to look at how the current African outbreak of Ebola occurred in order to answer this question.

Recent research has shown that the most likely source for the current Ebola outbreak is a small creature named Mops condylurus. This is a small insect eating bat, about the size of a mouse, which lives in savannah regions of sub-Saharan Africa. It is commonly hunted by children in Africa. There are many other bat species in Africa, but not all bats in Africa carry this virus.

Even when the bats do carry the virus, transmission from bats to humans seems to be a rare event, involving direct contact with a virus-carrying bat in such a way that bat body fluids or droppings get into wounds, eyes or mucous membranes. Recent research indicates the current outbreak started when the virus was transmitted to small boy who played in a bat infested tree in the African region of Guinea. (see article in Nature news 31 Dec 2014.)

So, back to the Charters Towers bats. At present Mops condylurus is not found in Australia, and no bat down under is known to have the Ebola virus. Australia has strict quarantine laws, and the importing of live animals of any kind is tightly regulated, so it is most unlikely anyone would get away with smuggling Mops condylurus bats into Australia.

Nevertheless, people in bat infested areas of Australia should be aware that Australian bats do carry other viruses known to make people and animals ill, e.g. Hendra virus and lyssavirus, so it is best to avoid direct contact with bats, and avoid getting bat saliva or dropping in contact with your eyes, mucous membranes or wounds.

For more on Ebola see the question: EBOLA VIRUS: why did God make it? To kill people? Answer here.

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About The Contributor

Diane Eager