Understanding human – bat interactions in NSW, Australia: improving risk communication for prevention of Australian bat lyssavirus

 BACKGROUND: Australian bat lyssavirus (ABLV) infects a number of flying fox and insectivorous bats species in Australia. Human infection with ABLV is inevitably fatal unless prior vaccination and/or post-exposure treatment (PET) is given. Despite ongoing public health messaging about the risks associated with bat contact, surveillance data have revealed a four-fold increase in the number of people receiving PET for bat exposure in NSW between 2007 and 2011. Our study aimed to better understand these human – bat interactions in order to identify additional risk communication messages that could lower the risk of potential ABLV exposure. All people aged 18 years or over whom received PET for non-occupation related potential ABLV exposure in the Hunter New England Local Health District of Australia between July 2011 and July 2013 were considered eligible for the study. Eligible participants were invited to a telephone interview to explore the circumstances of their bat contact. Interviews were then transcribed and thematically analysed by two independent investigators.

RESULTS: Of 21 eligible participants that were able to be contacted, 16 consented and participated in a telephone interview. Participants reported bats as being widespread in their environment but reported a general lack of awareness about ABLV, particularly the risk of disease from bat scratches. Participants who attempted to ‘rescue’ bats did so because of a deep concern for the bat’s welfare. Participants reported a change in risk perception after the exposure event and provided suggestions for public health messages that could be used to raise awareness about ABLV.

CONCLUSIONS: Reframing the current risk messages to account for the genuine concern of people for bat welfare may enhance the communication. The potential risk to the person and possible harm to the bat from an attempted ‘rescue’ should be promoted, along with contact details for animal rescue groups. The potential risk of ABLV from bat scratches merits greater emphasis. The report is from the NSW Public Health Officer Training Program, NSW Ministry of Health, North Sydney, Australia.

Quinn EK, Massey PD, Cox-Witton K, et al. BMC Vet Res 2014; 10(1):144.

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