By Merlin Tuttle
A December 8 Reuters press release, titled “Health experts warn of emerging threat of Nipah virus,” reported on a two-day Nipah conference in Singapore; picked up by CNA Asia and making headlines across much of Asia. On December 13, CNA World further reported that some experts believe Nipah to be a pandemic threat.
Both articles report flying foxes to be the carriers of this “deadly disease,” failing to mention its rarity or ease of prevention and speculating it to be a high-risk source of disease outbreaks over broad areas despite an absence of historic documentation. There was no mention of the vital importance of flying foxes as key pollinators / seed dispersers or the necessity and ease of learning to live safely with them. Such exaggerated warnings threaten bats everywhere, but none more than flying foxes that are already in alarming decline.
Claims that such rare viruses are poised to become the next pandemic are no more than long-shot guesses. Predicting the source of the next pandemic is extremely complicated, costly, and risks the reputations of scientists who claim such ability. Funding priorities should focus on prompt surveillance and control, not prediction.
Speculation linking bats to rare but scary diseases has created a perfect storm of lucrative grant-getting and media readership. Like other so-called emerging diseases, Nipah likely had been present for millions of years prior to modern discovery. The World Health Organization reports that, on average, Nipah has killed fewer than 30 humans annually throughout its South East and South Asian distribution since discovery in 1999. Among sources of human mortality, this is a minuscule number. The disproportionate attention diverts critical public health funding from far higher priorities such as the obesity crisis, which has dramatically increased to impact millions of people in Asia.
A wide variety of mammals have contracted Nipah, some asymptomatically. The extremely disproportionate focus on bats as the primary source may harm public health in addition to pushing them to the brink of ecological and economic irrelevancy. This could become an even bigger threat than the virus itself.
Avoidance of exposure to Nipah from flying foxes is relatively easy. The World Health Organization advises to simply wash fruit. Don’t drink unpasteurized palm juice, and don’t permit pigs to consume potentially contaminated fruit. Finally, up to 75% of Nipah transmission occurs among hospital staff and visitors, apparently due to lax procedures. Instead of blaming bats, early emphasis should be on improving public health.
Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to the staff at Reuters News and politely share your opinion in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as:
- Misleadingly presented facts are dangerous to all.
- Stop premature speculation that harms both bats and public health.
- Poor hospital procedures spread Nipah far more effectively than flying foxes.
- Loss of flying foxes threatens whole ecosystems and economies.
- Time for balanced reporting to focus on real threats and values.
- Flying fox loss can create greater risks than Nipah virus.
Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article for you to have impact. It’s numbers that count. Bats need all of you!