Ebola: Bats Prematurely Blamed
By Merlin Tuttle
If public health concerns were based on actual threats to human mortality, diseases speculated to be spread by bats would take a distant back seat. Even our beloved dogs are many times more dangerous than bats (1). Real killers, like consumption of over processed and contaminated foods dwarf any risks associated with animals (2).
Yet we squander millions of scarce public health dollars on witch hunts for rare diseases in bats, when those funds could save far more human lives if spent on reducing already proven killers such as obesity and environmental toxicants linked to escalating rates of cancer, heart disease, dementia and diabetes.
In recent years speculation linking scary diseases to bats has gained unprecedented media headlines and grants.
Discoveries of dozens of new viruses in bats have been announced as though they were major breakthroughs in human disease prevention (3). By comparison a recent study discovered hundreds of previously undescribed viruses in a single human (4). Given our minuscule knowledge of viruses, new ones can be found wherever we look. And since all life on earth is related at some level, it’s easy to claim scary sounding relationships that may be irrelevant or even beneficial to public health (5).
For most of human history we shared caves, then thatched huts and log cabins with bats. Only in recent decades have humans begun living in buildings that exclude bats. So it stands to reason that we should have evolved extraordinary resistance to each other’s diseases. And that appears to be the case.
While media headlines scream of bats as dangerous reservoirs for a wide variety of diseases (6), I and hundreds of other bat researchers remain in good health, despite countless hours of close contact, often surrounded by thousands or even millions of bats in caves. Like veterinarians we are vaccinated against rabies because we are sometimes bitten in self-defense by the animals we handle. However for people who simply don’t handle bats, the odds of contracting any bat-borne disease are close to zero.
Those wishing to scare us about bats are ignoring an incredible safety record. Throughout the Old World tropics, where the most feared pathogens reside, many thousands of people hunt and eat bats each year, and others work long hours extracting bat guano for fertilizer from their caves. Yet there is still no proof that the “potentially devastating pathogen outbreaks” we’ve been warned about have ever been caused by bats.
The search for an Ebola reservoir provides an enlightening example of how a race for lucrative, grant- getting headlines can bias science, harm public health and destroy valuable bat populations. Colonial bats are by far the easiest mammals to quickly sample in large numbers, making them tempting targets for quickly publishable virus research. However, after spending millions of dollars disproportionately testing large numbers of bats, there is still no scientifically credible evidence linking bats to Ebola (7).
Despite failure to find the virus in any bat species examined, during the summer of 2014 media headlines worldwide claimed that the two-year-old toddler, considered to be the “index case,” likely got Ebola from a straw-colored fruit bat (8). No one has ever been able to explain how this child may have contacted a three-foot-wingspan bat that never enters buildings without anyone knowing it, nor how thousands of Africans hunt and eat these bats without documented harm. Straw-colored fruit bats were simply believed guilty!
By December of 2014 researchers concluded that the same child likely was infected by playing near a free-tailed bat roost, again with no credible substantiation. Few, if any animals other than bats were tested and no Ebola virus was found. Nevertheless the bats were burned and their roost permanently destroyed (9).
In December of 2015 researchers reported that the straw-colored fruit bats, which had been blamed for years, were so highly resistant to Ebola infection that they were an unlikely reservoir. They further noted that “infectious Ebola viruses have never been recovered from bats” (7).
Due to exaggerated media speculation, supported by woefully biased and inadequate science prematurely reported, bats are now erroneously “known” as the source of Ebola, the most recent discovery having received minimal coverage. Simply saying that bats are beneficial can’t save them from those who increasingly fear and kill them. It’s time to end the bat witch hunt and put public health dollars back where they belong.
- Banyard, A.C. et al. 2013. Control and prevention of canine rabies: The need for building laboratory-based surveillance capacity. Antiviral Research, 98(3):357-364.
- Montiero, C.A. et al. 2011. Increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods and likely impact on human health: evidence from Brazil. Public Health Nutrition, 14(1):5-13. CDC. 2015. Foodborne germs and illnesses. http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html.
- For example. Gilbert, N. 2011. West Africans at risk of bat epidemic: Ecologists hope to avert public health disaster without a cull. Nature doi:10.1038/news.2011.545. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/220911/full/news.2011.545.html. Anonymous. 2012. New virus to fear? Bat flu could affect humans. http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/bat-flu-pose-risk-humans-evidence-virus-proving-not-animal-flu-discovered-article-1.1030409. Anonymous. 2012. Bats may carry up to 66 new species of virus linked to measles and mumps, scientists say. http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v3/n4/full/ncomms1796.html.
- Minot, S. et al. 2013. Rapid evolution of the human gut virome. Proc. National Acad. Sci. USA, 110(30):12450-55.
- Enriquez, J. and S. Gullans. 2015. Evolving Ourselves (see Viruses: The Roadrunners of Evolution, pp 99-103). Random House, Penguin Group.
- For example. Arnold, C. 2014. Contagion: Hordes of deadly diseases are lurking in bats and sometimes jumping to people. Can we prevent a major pandemic, asks Carrie Arnold. NewScientist, 8 Feb.:45-50. Grant, B. 2014. Lurking in the shadows: Bats harbor diverse pathogens, including Ebola, Marburg, SARS, and MERS viruses. The Scientist, http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/41537/ title/Lurking-in-the-shadows/#articleCommentForm.
- Ng, M. et al. 2015. Filovirus receptor NPC1 contributes to species-specific patterns of ebolavirus susceptibility in bats. http://elifesciences.org/content/4/e11785. Aizenman, N. 2016. Five mysteries about Ebola: From bats to eyeballs to blood. National Public Radio, January 14. http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/01/14/462964602/five-mysteries-about-ebola-from-bats-to-eyeballs-to-blood.
- For example. Lewis, K. and J. van dere Kleut. 2014. Ebola outbreak traced back to toddler and fruit bat. Health,http://wjla.com/news/health/nih-scientist-ebola-outbreak-traced-back-to-single-animal-bite-to-single-human–106590. Vidal, J. 2014. Ebola outbreak traced to toddler’s contact with infected fruit bat. The New Zealand Herald.http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11313653.
- Saez, A.M. et al. 2014. Investigating the zoonotic origin of the West African Ebola epidemic. EMBO Molecular Medicine, 7 (1):17-23.