Bats Carry a Lot of Diseases. What Should We Do About It?

Robert Crohan/Staff Writer

Something that amazes me is that animals, our furry, scaly, slimy brethren on this earth, can be deadly in unimaginable ways. Sometimes the animals we least expect a threat to emerge from can hit us with the toughest of problems. Front row, of course, is COVID-19.

When I learned that the virus almost certainly had a natural origin in bats, I was dumbfounded and, like many, angry. How could a small animal create such a fiery force of destruction? Why don’t people recognize this threat? Could this happen again? Why, of all animals, do bats carry so many diseases?

The answers to all these questions aren’t all that they seem. As humans in an ever-growing world, we need to better understand these fascinating creatures and find new ways to coexist with them. Bats are beautiful, majestic animals that deserve our respect.

Bats are the second largest group of mammals, with as many as 25% of all mammal species being bats. They have evolved over the centuries as the only mammals capable of flight, which allows for easy hunting, traveling, and escape from predators. They vary greatly in size and physical features.

They are also extremely dangerous. Only a few drink blood, but many of the worst viruses known- and unknown- to mankind come from bats: Rabies, Nipah, Hendra, SARS, MERS, Marburg, COVID-19, and the dreaded Ebola. All it takes is interaction with bat droppings without proper sanitation, or a bite.

But why, though? It’s in their biology: in order to fly, bats increase their metabolic rate, which generates molecular matter that can threaten DNA. Fractured DNA bits escape the animals, which is overload for other immune systems. Bats evolved stronger immune systems in response (these biological terms are alien to me too).

However, it is almost always human wrongdoing that sparks the flame. Nipah emerged when deforestation led to bats roosting over a pig farm. COVID-19, whether it accidentally left a laboratory or emerged somewhere else, almost certainly involved someone mishandling a bat or bat droppings without proper precautions. Even now, over 200 bat species are nearing extinction.

In many areas, notorious bat species are dangerously close to human settlements, such as in Cambodia, where they roost over community markets, sparking fears of the next outbreak. In South Asia, people fell ill with Nipah after drinking date palm juice contaminated with flying fox urine.

Viruses jump between species, so it is therefore crucial to keep our distance from wildlife in bat-rich ecosystems as much as possible. SARS, after all, jumped to Himalayan Palm Civets from bats and then to humans at a live animal market. Facilities like this, that may sell bats, are a biological threat to not just individual communities, but to the entire world. 

To end their importance, underdeveloped countries need to boost their economic security and sustainable agriculture so that individuals have more opportunities. Bat guano, used for fertilizer, should be replaced with bird droppings. And bat-rich areas must invest in increased sanitation, if possible, and more capable countries should work with less capable ones to deliver.

Additionally, a number of people have taken out their rage on the innocent animals: they have been burned, shot at, and clubbed in many countries. The solution is not to kill bats, but to understand, appreciate and respect them. While, of course, keeping our distance. Bats have been here longer than we have, after all. With that being said, it makes sense to try to keep them away from your house.

Indeed, bats are tremendously important to us: they pollinate many plant species that we rely on for food, and, ironically enough, eat the mosquitos that cause more deaths from disease than the bats themselves. We should very thoroughly clean any food that may have been in contact with bats. 

Leaving these animals be is crucial to allowing them to flourish amongst themselves and enrich their ecosystems, along with our economies. It is estimated that bats save US farmers $23 billion annually by gorging on pesky insects.

I have argued that intentional handling bats in this time of frequent spillover is a human rights violation. Only trained scientists and animal trainers should be able to do this. It is encouraging to see more bat research in Democratic Republic of Congo and other places to prevent the next pandemic and understand how they resist their ugly germs.

Another point to bring up is that bats in North America have fallen victim to their own pandemic: a fungus which causes White-Nose Syndrome has made its way to the bats, killing off many. The culprit is none other than us humans. We spread it by getting too comfortable with close contact with bats. You could say there are mutual pandemics going on. 

What this revealed is a sensitive, inter-species relationship. We are related, and no one side is always wrong or right. We are both trying to survive in a harsh world. But it is the responsibility of humans, who have pummeled the planet to satisfy ourselves, to be more careful.

But going forward, we need to try harder as a species to heed the warnings of COVID-19 and dispel the nasty reputation of bats. Think about it: if bat species go extinct, we may lose our forests or fruit. Other species that eat bats or their pollinated byproducts will be threatened, setting off a chain reaction. We can’t afford to lose more amazing species, nor can bats afford more destructive human activity.

Additionally, COVID-19, which spreads like wildfire, is nothing compared to Ebola. If the next bat-borne virus is as contagious as COVID-19, as deadly as Ebola, and with the incubation period of Nipah- which could very well happen- it would be the end of civilization as we know it.

So, it is up to us to make the change. Bats are great animals, but must be treated essentially as important biohazards. Because next time, we, and the animals, won’t be so lucky.


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Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash