Today’s issue of TheScientist contains another outstanding example of how MTBC is making a unique, but critical difference for bats. This article was originally submitted as an email to the editor. On January 13, I explained the harm done by biased portrayal of bats. The editor promptly requested permission to publish my communication as an op-ed. We encourage our members to share it broadly. Nothing can threaten bats more than the fear and intolerance created by misleading disease stories.
Speculation linking bats to scary diseases has become lucrative, both in generating research grants and media readership. As historically documented, it can have devastating impact in fostering intolerance and even massive bat eradication. It also threatens the credibility of scientists and publishers and diverts critical public health funding from far higher priorities.
Many authors and publishers of such counterproductive speculation are well intended, just misinformed. If kindly approached with sound documentation of the harm being done, they are appreciative and can be extremely helpful as we have repeatedly demonstrated.
Lena Sun’s article, “On a Bat’s Wing and a Prayer,” in the December 13, 2018 edition of The Washington Post, though well intended, contains misinformation that can threaten both conservation and public health. It leads with two false premises: bats are “some of the most dangerous animals in the world” and the rare Marburg virus is an important threat to world health. (1)
This basic discovery was covered by several news media, each with a slightly different slant. We responded to this one because it contained the worst misrepresentations. It was the only one seen that claimed bats to be “some of the most dangerous animals in the world” in addition to exaggerating the seriousness of its threat to world health.
Since its discovery in 1967, Marburg virus has caused a dozen outbreaks, killing fewer than 400 people. All the so-called “emerging diseases” speculated to be associated with bats worldwide, have killed fewer than 20,000 people in the past 40 years.
By comparison, HIV from chimpanzees has killed more than 39 million people,(2) yet these more popular animals consistently escape being labeled as dangerous. Among other viral killers in Africa, the World Health Organization reports more than 70,000 children die annually from vaccine-preventable roto virus infections.(3) It also warns of geometric growth in obesity, that according to the National Institutes of Health causes 300,000 preventable deaths annually in the U.S. alone.(4) And by extremely conservative estimate, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 23,000 Americans die annually from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.(5)
So why are we focusing limited public health resources disproportionately on the rarest threats? And why are rare risks from bats often exaggerated? The answers are simple. Bats are little known, widely feared, easy to sample, and have few defenders. Also, new viruses can be found wherever we look. These combined facts make bats uniquely vulnerable to a seemingly perfect storm. Speculation linking them to equally little known, but scary viruses has proven extremely lucrative in gaining unprecedentedly large grants and media readership, while diverting limited public health funds from far higher priorities.(6)(7)
Historically, bats have one of our planet’s finest track records of living safely with humans. Millions live in cities from America to Africa, Asia, and Australia, and have not caused even one of the world’s great pandemics. Diseases associated with bats are easily avoidable, mostly by simply not handling them.(7) Until more is known about Marburg, African caves where the virus may exist should be avoided.
For those visiting Africa, risks from mosquito-transmitted malaria or dog-transmitted rabies are orders of magnitude higher than those from any of the so-called “emerging,” but ancient, diseases speculated to be associated with bats. Our real fears should focus on preventing further loss of these already alarmingly declining, but ecologically and economically essential animals.(7)
Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to The Washington Post editors and author to politely share your opinion in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate exaggerated speculation that creates needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article in order for you to have impact. It’s numbers that count. Bats need all of you!
“Thank you so much for your concern, and for reading the bioGraphic story about Nipah virus. I really appreciate it. I assure you that I am a strong proponent of bats and the tremendously important ecological roles they play. I also think that bats are simply amazing creatures in their many forms and functions. (When you have time, please take a look at bioGraphic‘s other bat stories as evidence of that appreciation: Glimmers in the Dark, Battling Disease, Bat Ballet, and Agave Whisperers.)”
He went on to explain it is never his intention to vilify or advocate killing of bats and hopes he is being clear.
12/20/18 Merlin response
“I do not doubt your concern for bats or your good intentions. As I’ve commented, most of your article was just fine. My complaint lies in labeling bats to be the most dangerous disease-spreading mammals. Our background experiences are apparently strikingly different. Mine regarding the impact of public fear have been summarized recently. I’d be delighted to learn more about whatever experiences led you to your apparently differing concerns. However, I’d much prefer to simply share our perspectives over the phone.”
12/20/18 Steven Bedard response
“Thank you for your reply. I look forward to the opportunity to speak with you. I first heard of your research when I was an undergrad studying zoology and ecology at Colorado State in the late 80’s, so it would be an honor to “meet” by phone.”
He further notes that he extensively interviewed disease experts and explains, “You will see in the article that I chose my words very carefully. I did not say that ‘bats are the most dangerous disease-spreading mammals.’ Humans hold that dubious distinction. What I wrote is that, ‘Among mammals, bats rank number one in terms of their role in spreading zoonotic diseases.’ That statement is most certainly true, according to my sources, as well as published research such as this Nature paper published in June 2017.
He also noted, “Some of your followers have expressed concern that if people in Bangladesh understand where the virus is coming from that they will begin to persecute bats.”
[Merlin’s thoughts—That is a serious misunderstanding. Scientists and conservationists have a responsibility to inform the public of disease sources, locations, and how to avoid them. We also must condemn sensational speculation and exaggeration, either of which can seriously harm both public health and bats.]
12/21/18 Merlin response
As per your suggestion, I’ve read your recent stories from bioGraphic and congratulate you on some very fine promotion of bat values. In fact, your “Glimmers in the Dark” article is the best I’ve seen on WNS. Given your clear concern for bats, I’m especially looking forward to speaking with you by phone when you return early in the New Year. When ready, simply suggest a time and phone number, and I’ll be happy to call.
We’ve likely had rather different experiences on the impact of exaggerated disease fears. Unlike you, I’ve had the misfortune of repeatedly seeing the results first hand.
During my early research in Tennessee, I met cave owners who burned many thousands of endangered gray bats by lighting kerosene in their roosts due to exaggerated rabies warnings. In Mexico, I took the attached photo of a few of the estimated 250,000 skeletons of insect-eating bats we found on reopening a roost where a fearful owner had sealed the bats inside. And, while photographing bats for my 2014 National Geographic article, I found a major bat cave recently sealed (with the bats inside) due to disease fears in a Cuban national park. In my experience, people seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear. In fact, the free-tailed bat colony speculated to have been the source of the 2014 Ebola outbreak was burned in its roost.
Seeing how well intended you are, I hope you will read my 2017 report on fear-motivated bat killing and its impact on conservation. I am quite familiar with the Nature paper reporting that bats harbor a significantly higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than any other mammal group and look forward to discussing it with you.
[Note that Merlin has rebutted the aforementioned Nature article, read his response HERE.]
Original Response By Merlin Tuttle 12/19/18
Steven Bedard’s article, “The Reservoir,” in the December 12 issue of bioGraphic contains many important points, and the accompanying photography by A.M. Ahad is outstanding. Nevertheless, the subtitle is exaggerated speculation. The claim that a bat-borne virus in Bangladesh is poised to become the next pandemic is no more than a long-shot guess.
Neither historic precedent nor credible science support the statement that “Among mammals, bats rank number one in terms of their role in spreading zoonotic diseases.” Bats have an outstanding record of not transmitting disease to humans, though they are poorly understood and widely feared. They are the easiest mammals to quickly sample, so virus hunters disproportionately focus on bats, of course finding more viruses in them because that is where they are looking!
Unfortunately, speculating possible linkages between bats and rare, but scary viruses has created a perfect storm of grant-getting success and media coverage. Resulting biases can impede public health progress and lead to public intolerance of bats that are ecologically and economically essential. (1) (2)
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,not prediction. (3)
Nipah, like other so-called “emerging viruses,” is ancient. As reported in Bedard’s article, it likely has been infecting humans for hundreds of years, unrecognized due to its rarity. Nevertheless, as the human population expands beyond sustainability, poverty, stress, and the conditions favorable to pandemics will make major outbreaks virtually inevitable, as stated. But it’s anybody’s guess where they will come from. Focusing too narrowly on bats may be impeding progress. Unsustainable growth in human populations is the real problem, one which few are willing to address.
Education regarding the risks of drinking raw palm juice is commendable. Perhaps the next step should be family planning. Nature has two remedies for overpopulation, pandemics and famine. Studies of rare diseases in bats will prevent neither.
Our combined voices can make a difference. Choose any or all means of contact to reach out to bioGraphic editors and author to politely share your opinion in your own words. Editors do take notice. Remember, your response can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate exaggerated speculation that creates needless fear of bats.” Editors just need to know you like or dislike an article in order for you to have impact. It’s numbers that count. Bats need all of you!
Every year around this time there is a spike in needlessly sensational rabies stories featuring exaggerations of truth. We always encourage others to respond politely to editors, authors, decision makers and media personnel when they see these. Editors’ jobs depend on readership and they do aim to please. They just need to know you like or dislike an article. Responses can be very simple such as, “I don’t appreciate sensational headlines or speculation that creates needless fear of bats.”
We work hard to be a source for your personal ambassadorship of bats and wish we could respond to every article, however our resources are limited. We cannot do it alone. We hope that this post will supplement your future responses when you encounter false or exaggerated bat publicity.
Unfortunately, this well intended story is a sensational exaggeration of truth. It is correct to say that most human rabies in America comes from bats. However, put in context, it’s just 1-2 cases per year, making it one of the rarest causes of death. By comparison, just by riding one mile in a motorized vehicle, an American exceeds his/her annual risk of rabies from any source.
Because even sick bats almost never bite, except in self-defense if handled, the risk of contracting any disease from one is exceedingly low for anyone who simply leaves them alone. In Austin, Texas, thousands of people gather nightly to observe the spectacular emergences of 1.5 million bats close-up. And in decades of this exceptionally close association, no one has been attacked or contracted a disease.
Post-exposure rabies vaccinations in the United States are outrageously overpriced, currently costing from $10,000 to $22,000 per person treated. With huge profits at stake, and our CDC heavily influenced by drug companies, promotion of exaggerated fear is not surprising. Unprovoked bites are exceedingly rare, so much so that I have yet to experience one despite close association with millions of bats worldwide for more nearly 60 years.
Human rabies cases are often diagnosed post-mortem or after the patient is incoherent. Even in cases in which parents or friends report bites, the U.S. CDC reports “no bite history” unless the patient is able to confirm. Consequently, human cases, regardless of animal origin (i.e. bat, dog, skunk or raccoon) often get reported as having no bite history. Huge misrepresentation occurs when such reports are used to disproportionately frighten people of bats.
Since 1996 the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has advised consideration of post-exposure prophylaxis for “persons potentially exposed to bats even where a history of physical contact cannot be elicited,” unless prompt diagnosis excluded rabies. Based on its independent analysis Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization, opted not to follow CDC’s recommended bat policy. They do not advise vaccination unless there has been direct contact. For detailed documentation, see Rabies in Perspective.
The July 11, 2018 edition of Smithsonian.com contains another highly misleading story on virus hunters protecting us from pandemics. The story by Katherine J. Wu is titled, “A Never-Before-Seen-Virus Has Been Detected in Myanmar’s Bats.” Wu claims that to prevent the next Pandemic, we need to pinpoint it at the source. She then reports that “researchers in Myanmar have hit pay dirt with a never-before-seen virus that infects wrinkle-lipped bats—a virus in the same family as the ones that cause SARS and MERS.”
After further extolling the virtues of virus hunting, she quotes Chelsea Wood, reportedly a conservation ecologist, as saying that, “Tropical rainforests [in particular] are just cesspools of viral diversity—the highest viral diversity on the planet.” The headline and rhetoric in this article sound more like grocery store tabloid writing than something one would expect from America’s leading institution of science.
This story is a complete contradiction of a paper by epidemiologists, Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Andersen, titled “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction” which appeared in the Journal Nature on June 7, 2018.  Referring to virus hunting, they conclude that “given the rarity of outbreaks and the complexity of host-pathogen interactions, it is arrogant to imagine that we could use such surveys to predict and mitigate the emergence of disease.” They emphasize that broad surveys of animal viruses have little practical value when it comes to disease prevention. They conclude that such approaches are an extremely costly waste of limited public health funds and warn that “Trust is undermined when scientists make overblown promises.” (more…)
Leading epidemiologists are finally acknowledging that the recently huge expenditures for virus hunting (mostly focused on bats) have little practical value in disease prevention. The June 7 issue of Nature contains a key paper titled, “Pandemics: spend on surveillance, not prediction.” In it Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Anderson combine their expertise to advocate a much-needed change of course in prevention of viral transmission from animals to humans, one that may also considerably brighten the future of bats.
They emphasize that broad surveys of animal viruses have little practical value when it comes to disease prevention and warn that “Trust is undermined when scientists make overblown promises about disease prevention.” They “urge those working on infectious disease to focus funds and efforts on a much simpler and cost-effective way to mitigate outbreaks—proactive, real-time surveillance of human populations.”
We greatly appreciate Mongabay for its handling of the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, India. Its story, “Nipah infection in Kerala: Don’t blame the bats alone; improve public health,” appeared on May 30, authored by Haritha John and Gopikrishna Warrier. Needless alarm was avoided by balanced reporting. As so often is the case, the rarest threats make the biggest news. Fortunately, in this instance, the news was accurate, so did not cause needless panic.
Bats can indeed transmit deadly diseases like rabies and Nipah to humans, though transmission is exceedingly rare and easily avoided. In the case of Ebola, bats have been too easily assumed guilty. A wide variety have been tested at outbreak locations. But, “Ebolavirus has yet to be isolated from bats, and no direct evidence links bats to Ebolavirus infection in humans.” (Spengler et al. 2016) Virologists still know “nothing about where it comes from and how it causes outbreaks.” (Kupferschmidt 2017).
Good science tests but does not attempt to “prove” hypotheses. Numerous attempts have been made to demonstrate a link between the origin of SARS and bats, and literally thousands of publications have reported it as documented fact. The December 1 issue of Nature, included yet another example, this one titled “Bat cave solves mystery of deadly SARS virus—and suggests new outbreak could occur.” The article reports, “After a detective hunt across China, researchers chasing the origin of the deadly SARS virus have finally found their smoking gun.”
The January 16 issue of Nature, carries a rebuttal titled, “Don’t misrepresent link between bats and SARS.” Authors point out that the “smoking gun” metaphor is sensationalist and unjustified, potentially leading to culling and bat roost destruction.
The November 23, 2017 issue of THE CONVERSATION lures readers with an important sounding, bat-friendly title, “Can bats help humans survive the next pandemic?” However, two-thirds of the article is devoted to promoting fear instead of progress and is based on questionable sources. This is particularly disturbing given the publication’s stated objective—“Fight for Truth in Journalism.”
This story is a simple repeat of close to a decade of often exaggerated speculation attempting to link viruses found in bats to transmission of scary but relatively rare ones like SARS and MERS to humans. Documented transmission of any disease from bats to humans remains exceedingly rare. And no one has successfully shown transmission of SARS or MERS from bats to other mammals. Dromedary camels are now well known to have been the source of MERS in humans for decades, likely longer.
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is the most recent contribution by Merlin Tuttle to the world of bats. With over 50 years of in-depth knowledge and experience Merlin Tuttle, renowned bat expert, educator and wildlife photographer founded MTBC with one true goal in mind; teaching the world to understand and appreciate the vital contributions bats make to human beings and the world we live in.