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.(more…)
Amid media announcements that the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats has spread to California, and growing public concern, The Wildlife Society announced the most recent attempt to find a cure. On July 9, an article titled “Bacteria treatment helps bats survive white-nose syndrome,” suggested progress toward a cure. However, there is no evidence that human intervention can slow the spread or cure the disease. As I’ve reported, the best available studies from the Northeast indicate that population recovery at key sites is exceeding expectations, and that a cure is unnecessary, impractical to implement, and risks unintended negative consequences.
A reminder that our members DO make a difference! Leading news media outlets are changing tack, publishing more positive, and fewer negative, stories about bats as a direct result of MTBC members’ ongoing support and actions.
Your vigilance brings misleading articles to our attention. Your support enables us to carefully document and explain issues of concern. Your personal, diplomatic comments to editors influence their further actions. Media portrayal of bats cannot be ignored. It is key to broad public understanding and support, without which conservation progress could prove impossible.
Since 2014, we’ve prepared and distributed 15 blog posts and 18 Bat Flashes providing counterpoint documentation in response to exaggerated, misleading, and often completely wrong speculation attempting to link bats to rare, but scary diseases. Widely distributed publications included “Give Bats a Break” in Issues in Science and Technology (subsequently translated into French and Chinese), “Fear of Bats and its Consequences” in the Journal of Bat Research and Conservation, and “Humans Shouldn’t Be So Scared of Bats” in Slate. Additionally, the science journal, Nature, published a co-authored response in its correspondence section, titled “Don’t misrepresent link between bats and SARS.” (more…)
For at least the second time this year, The New York Times has published facts involving bats and disease in a misleading manner. At a time when bats are in special need of conservation, scary speculation is extremely counterproductive. In February of this year, we issued a Bat Flash, and members contacted Times authors and editors to caution them about the negative impact of premature disease speculation.
Now bats need you to speak up again. On June 14, 2019, I responded with the following communication to The New York Times Editor:
I read with interest the recent article, “Bats, Not Dogs, Are the Most Common Source of Rabies,” by James Gorman. As a biologist who has studied and photographed hundreds of species of bats worldwide, I have personally documented instances in which thousands, even millions of bats have been burned in their caves due to misleading warnings that incite needless fear. In fact, fear of bats is often the single greatest impediment to their conservation.
I’m deeply concerned because bats are essential to whole economies and ecosystems upon which we, ourselves, depend. Their loss threatens our future, far more than any possible disease transmission. Education regarding the benefits of conserving bats is urgently needed. (more…)
Just as we enter a period of exceptional need for reliable science to protect and restore a healthy planet, too many traditionally prestigious science journals and institutions are rewarding bad science.(1)(2) “Scientists are supposed to relentlessly probe the fabric of reality with the most rigorous and skeptical of methods.”(3) Yet traditionally credible journals like Nature and Science are increasingly publishing sensational speculation, particularly studies attempting to link bats to deadly diseases.(4)
Growing numbers are attempting to prove rather than test hypotheses, sometimes based on a sample of just one viral fragment from a single bat.(5) Kai Kupferschmidt’s article titled, “This bat species may be the source of the Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa,” exemplifies the problem. It is based on a highly questionable sample from one bat, though it appeared in the online news site of the journal Science (January 24, 2019).
As is typical in such stories, it begins with a scary question that will grab readership and media attention. That Science title is followed by a emboldened quote stating that “This is an important new lead and it should be followed up extensively.”
Later quotes, less emphasized, admit that only a small viral fragment was found, and that it may have come from an infected insect eaten by the bat. In other words, this bat may have simply eaten an Ebola-carrying insect, completely changing the bat’s role from implied source to controller. Perhaps if virologists weren’t so focused on proving that Ebola comes from bats, they might have found the true source by now.
A growing number of leading virologists are warning that virus hunting, promoted by such articles, is a costly waste. The unsupportable public health promises being made are likely to demean the credibility of science.(6) Scientists need incentives for finding the right answer rather than for simply getting published.(1)
Kupferschmidt’s article ends with a warning that bats shouldn’t be killed. However, as already documented, people seldom tolerate and often kill animals they fear, especially bats.(7)(8)
The New York Times ran a similar account of the same story, authored by Denise Grady. It was titled “Deadly Ebola Virus Is Found in Liberian Bat, Researchers Say.” The author admits “It feels premature scientifically” but fails to admit that the small viral fragment may have come from an infected insect eaten by the bat, making the bat a potential aid in limiting the spread of Ebola. They too, belatedly and ineffectively, admonish not to kill bats.
Sensational and premature reports like these are clearly irresponsible and risk great harm to both scientific credibility and the environment. (more…)
Today’s issue of TheScientist contains another outstanding example of how MTBC is making a unique, but critical difference for bats. This article [by Merlin Tuttle] 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)
“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 (more…)
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…)
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.