WE’VE had bird flu. Swine flu. Flu flu.
And now apparently, we’ve got to be worried about flu coming from bats.
Scientists first discovered that the mammals carried flu viruses back in 2012 but they’ve just discovered that humans may be able to catch them too.
Animals like pigs and chickens can catch flu in a similar way to humans because we share similar receptors in our respiratory tracts.
That’s how things like bird and swine flu became so dangerous.
But bat flu viruses attach and enter cells in a different way to these other viruses.
The animals we eat could be infected with bat flu
Muhammed Munir, lecturer in molecular virology at Lancaster University, writes on The Conversation that new “alarming” research has found that bat flu receptors are actually really similar to mice, pigs, and chickens.
Scientists compared genes to see whether they were resistant or susceptible to bat-borne flu infection.
MHC-II proteins are found the surface of certain immune cells, and they help to distinguish between our body’s cells and harmful bacteria and viruses.
The researchers over-expressed these proteins from pigs and chickens into human cells – and that made them susceptible to bat flu.
And that means they could spread it to us
“Because pigs and chickens are able to transmit conventional flu viruses to humans, researchers over-expressed proteins from pigs and chickens into human cells,” he says.
“These hybrid cells became susceptible to bat flu, which suggests that the virus could infect chicken and pigs.
“Because of the role farm animals play in transmitting flu to humans, it appeared that the bat flu virus has the potential to either infect humans directly or by first infecting other animals.”
But more research is needed before we all start freaking out, and this study only shows that you could be at risk if you come into contact or eat farmyard animals.
Bats carry loads of other potentially fatal diseases too
They may be cute but bats are germ taxis.
They carry 65 human diseases like Ebola, SARS and Nipah viruses, which have either been spread directly from bat to human or via another animal.
Muhammed says: “Intriguingly, viruses that can successfully spread and transmit between different bat species can also rapidly spread to people, indicating the risk bats pose in spreading zoonotic diseases”.
So…are we all at risk from bat flu?
“We don’t know whether humans have been infected with bat flu in the past, but this research suggests that it is possible,” Muhammed says.
He says that the fact scientists have found that bat flu virus can be expressed in the respiratory tract means that bat flu can replicate – “suggesting that the virus could be transmitted to humans through the air”.
“The bat flu viruses could be spread by bat saliva, urine or faces. This route of transmission is more likely because of increasing bat-human contact.”
In fact, he goes on to say that the likelihood of bat flu infecting livestock and humans is “probably high”, due to the fact that bat-borne flu viruses are quite common around the globe.
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“Importantly, because of increasing human contacts with wildlife, including bats, consumption of bat ‘bushmeat’ and hunting bats for both food and money has exposed humans to the zoonotic spillover of viruses.”
Muhammed says that eating bats could put us at risk of other viral and bacterial infections.
So it’s a no to eating bats (in case you were thinking about it…), and a “watch this space” to see if any livestock have fallen victim to bat flu.
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