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Friday, May 21, 1999 Published at 14:34 GMT 15:34 UK


Bats get an unfair press

BBC Doctor Colin Thomas believes it is time for a reassessment of bats

I can't make my mind up about Bats.

As a child I shunned them for their evil blood sucking behaviour portrayed in horror films, but soon realised that not all bats make a bee line for your jugular and suck you dry.

In fact even vampire bats have a rather surgical way of getting their daily helping of liquefied black pudding , but more about that later.

The story about bats in Malaysia carrying a brain virus similar to Japanese encephalitis has reopened my ambivalence to the nocturnal beast.

But in this case, as they are fruit bats there is no question of them passing on the disease by directly biting a human.

In fact they rely on those well known mobile hypodermic syringes (mosquitoes) to transmit the disease.

To be honest I didn't know much at all about bats until a few years ago when I saw a BBC cameraman who had a curious bite on his leg which looked like 2 little bites with a few millimetres separating them.

I had never seen anything quite like it, but when he told me that the area he had been in was populated with bats my brain started to activate.

As luck would have it I had just discovered I had a bat roost in my loft containing some 100 bats so they were uppermost in my mind.

Following some swift research I discovered that a two pronged bite was pathological for a vampire bat - not as I had imagined a huge ulcer of torn flesh as the vampire had chewed his way into the skin.

Delicate procedure

[ image: Bats can spread disease]
Bats can spread disease
In fact vampires use a rather delicate surgical procedure. They lightly pierce the skin with their fangs (hence the two puncture marks) and introduce a little saliva which has both anticoagulant and anaesthetic properties.

The host then bleeds through these two little puncture marks and the bat laps up the oozing blood rather like a cat with a saucer of milk.

This experience, as luck would have it, lead me to one of my minor triumphs in medical diagnoses. I was telephoned, would you believe, by a BBC employee who obviously had great faith in my powers about a strange bite that had appeared on her son whilst asleep.

They were staying in northern Italy. With my knowledge of bat bites my first question, not really expecting the affirmative answer was 'does it have two puncture marks? I'm sure you can guess the rest.

The point here is that vampire bats can act as vectors for rabies so it is very important that in areas where rabies is endemic, and Europe is such a place, that vaccination and anti-serum is given in case rabies has been transmitted.

I'm pleased to say that the person managed to get the correct jabs and was fine.

So it looks like bats will remain saddled with their bad image problem_.poor little mites, they can't help it.

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