Catching diseases directly from flying-foxes is extremely unlikely. However they are known to carry two life-threatening viruses—Hendra virus and Australian Bat Lyssavirus.
Flying-foxes are hosts for Hendra virus, which occasionally spills over from the flying-fox population into horses. The resulting infection can result in the death of the horse. The infections are rare, which indicates that transmissions may only occur under very specific and extreme conditions.
As a precautionary measure, horse owners should not feed or water horses beneath trees where flying-foxes roost or visit regularly. If horse owners know there are bats in the area, they should contact their veterinarian immediately if any of their horses become ill with fever, respiratory problems, colic or neurological signs (like loss of vision, loss of balance). Until the horse is examined and cleared by a veterinarian, horse owners should limit contact with sick horses and avoid contact with any body fluid, including nasal discharge. If horse owners are concerned about their own health, they should contact their doctor or their local public health unit immediately.
Queensland Health advises that there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission of Hendra virus. Testing of people who have come in contact with a person infected with the Hendra virus, including health care workers and family contacts, has shown no evidence of the virus.
There is also no evidence that the virus can be passed directly from flying-foxes to humans, from the environment to humans, from humans to horses, or that it is airborne.
It is important that people do not handle flying-foxes.
Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV)
Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV) can only be caught from untreated bites or scratches from infected bats. Two people have died from ABLV from a flying-fox (there has also been an ABLV death from a micro-bat). All four species of flying-fox, and at least three species of insectivorous micro-bat, can carry ABLV. According to Queensland Health, surveys of flying-fox populations have indicated that less than 1% of the animals actually carry the virus. In sick and injured flying-foxes, around 7% have been found to carry the virus.
If you find a sick, injured or orphaned flying-fox, do not touch it. Contact your local wildlife care organisation or contact RSPCA Qld through their website or by calling 1300 ANIMAL (264 625). They will put you in contact with a licensed and fully-vaccinated wildlife rescuer who is trained to handle and care for wildlife.
If the flying-fox shows signs of paralysis, or has come into contact with (i.e. bitten or scratched) a dog or a cat, contact the nearest Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) office or call 13 25 23 as they may wish to inspect the flying-fox. If the flying-fox has come into contact with (i.e. bitten or scratched) a person, contact the nearest public health unit or a doctor immediately.
Do not dispose of the flying-fox. In both these situations, the flying-fox will need to be tested so that definite information is obtained as to whether the flying-fox was infected or not. This information is vital to how the situation is then managed.
To dispose of a dead flying-fox that is not needed for testing, use a shovel and/or tongs to remove it and then wrap it and place it in a bin or landfill site, or bury it. Do not touch the bat without wearing thick gloves. If burying it, ensure that the hole is deep enough so that a dog could not dig it up. If the flying-fox is needed for testing, you will receive instructions from either DAF or Queensland Health respectively about collection of the bat.
Bat handling for occupational contact with bats
For more information on personal protective equipment needed for people who handle flying-foxes, please visit Wildlife Health Australia's website.
If bitten or scratched by a bat:
Do not scrub the wound.
Contact your doctor or hospital immediately—they will arrange for the vaccinations that are necessary to protect you against ABLV. These vaccinations should start as soon as possible after being bitten or scratched.
Wash the wound gently but thoroughly with soap and water for at least five minutes. Apply an antiseptic (e.g. povidone, iodine or another iodine preparation or ethanol alcohol) and cover the wound.
It is possible to have the bat tested for ABLV. The department and Queensland Health will assist with the collection of the bat.
If bat saliva gets into your eyes, nose or mouth, or into an open wound, flush thoroughly with water and seek medical advice immediately.
Prompt treatment following a bite or a scratch is vital.