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Vets have been asked to support the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s (APHA’s) surveillance work following the first identification of EBLV-1 in a native British serotine bat in 2018. Dr Samantha Holland, Veterinary Advisor in the Veterinary Exotic Notifiable Disease Unit at APHA, urged delegates at the 2019 OV Conference on 25 September to make sure that they are up to date with best practice advice from their respective public health agencies and the Bat Conservation Trust, and to encourage anyone finding a dead bat to submit it to APHA’s surveillance scheme.

Sixteen different lyssaviruses have so far been detected in bats and classified into the lyssavirus genus including the classical rabies virus (RABV), which is responsible for thousands of human mortalities every year. All the viruses can be detected in saliva and transmitted through bites and scratches. Clinical signs are indistinguishable from infection with classical rabies virus; nevertheless there have been very few reports of virus positive bats in Europe, or of spillover of these European lyssaviruses into humans or other mammals.

Two native UK bats, the serotine bat and Daubenton’s bat have been shown to harbour lyssavirus at a low level. In mainland Europe EBLV-1 is the most common with 95% of bats identified to be carrying bat lyssavirus being serotines carrying EBVL-1, however it was only first identified in the UK as recently as last year. There have, however, been regular identifications of EBVL-2 in Daubenton’s bats in the UK since it was first identified in 1996 (a total of 23 EBLV-2 cases in bats have been identified over the last 22 years).

Serotine bats are found in limited areas in South Wales and southern England and are less frequently seen in the UK than Daubenton’s. They comprise <1% of bats submitted to the APHA passive surveillance scheme with Daubenton’s bats making up around 3%. The Common Pipstrelle accounts for the majority of submissions. Serotines are, however, considered more likely to come into contact with humans and pets than Daubenton’s bats due to their habit of foraging across many landscapes and taking prey from the ground (Daubenton’s exclusively forage over water bodies).

Many bats migrate (some over 1000km) and this, together with their relatively large foraging ranges, can mean identifying the ‘home roost’ for any individual identified case is difficult. Since the first identification of a serotine infected with EBLV-1 in October 2018, four more cases of EBLV-1-infected serotine bats have been detected within a 20km area of the first case; the most recent in September 2019. Human cases of infection with European bat lyssaviruses is exceedingly rare, with only two reported from Europe since the 1970’s one of which was in the UK in 2002 following the death in 2002 of a licensed bat handler in Scotland infected with EBVL-2. The UK’s Rabies Free status from the OIE is unaffected by the presence of EBLV-1 and EBVL-2.
According to Dr Holland, there are more than 1,200 species of bats across the world and many are of conservation concern. Only bats in the Americas have been shown to carry the classical rabies virus. Bats also appear to exhibit a unique but poorly understood resistance to disease which results in them showing altered pathologies (or none at all) when infected with many viruses.
While the risk to humans and pets from EBLV-1 and EBLV-2 is still low, Dr Holland called for vigilance and support from vets with surveillance: bats avoid people but some roost in buildings and injured bats are sometimes found on the ground.
It is important that vets follow and understand good practice advice from the public health authorities in dealing with them and pass this advice on to their clients. For instance, handling bats should be avoided. If it is necessary, strong, gardening-type gloves must be worn or the ‘spider technique’, where the bat is covered by a glass or jar, used. In the case of bites or scratches, Public Health authority guidelines must be followed. These include cleaning the wound immediately and seeking prompt medical attention. Public Health agencies will assess need for post exposure treatment (classical rabies vaccines have been shown to offer some cross-protection for European bat lyssaviruses).
If vets or their clients find a live bat, they should call the Bat Conservation Trust for advice (Bats Helpline 0345 1300228). If rabies is suspected in a bat (or any other animal), she encouraged delegates to call APHA immediately on the single point of contact number for England or Wales or local offices in Scotland.
Dr Holland also asked vets presented with a dead bad to submit it to APHA in a ‘bat pack’ which they can obtain from the Bat Conservation Trust.
Dr Samantha Holland spoke at the annual OV Conference, which took place on 25 and 26 September at Alexandra House in Swindon. Offering a unique forum in which OVs can discuss current topics of interest and recent developments in their work, it is organised by veterinary CPD provider Improve International, in conjunction with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and 5m Publishing.