Roasted or fried bats have been eaten in West Africa for millennia and their caves play a large role in some religious activities. But bats host dozens of pathogens that may have the potential to infect humans – including viruses that cause rabies, SARS, and Ebola. According to new survey results in rural Ghana, contact with bats happens often and in many ways. The findings were published in Emerging Infectious Diseases.
To prevent bat-related zoonotic diseases – those that jump from animals to humans – researchers want to know how often and why humans and bats interact. But there are only a few published quantitative records, and most of these aren’t specific to Africa.
To better understand human–bat interactions, a team led by Christian Drosten from the University of Bonn Medical Centre conducted in-depth interviews with local leaders and handed out questionnaires to 1,274 people living in three rural towns in Ghana between 2011 and 2012: Kwamang, Forikrom, and Buoyem. The surrounding areas were home to several fruit-eating and insectivorous bat species known to carry coronaviruses, hantaviruses and filoviruses, among others.
Interactions with bats, the team found, were both frequent and diverse: Contact with bats was reported by 66% of the respondents.
In Buoyem, for example, during the Yam Festival, men would take ladders to caves on Wednesday evenings to catch fruit bats as they returned from feeding, and the night’s catch would be collected by the women (Yam activities were recently discontinued due to chieftaincy disputes and conflict over ownership of cave lands).
Over a third of the respondents say that they’ve been bitten or scratched by bats or exposed to their urine. Nearly half of the participants visit bat caves frequently. And 17% say that they come into contact with bats only in their normal living or work environment.
Bat meat is also commonly traded and sold in market places, and these supply routes sometimes extend into neighboring countries. Of the survey respondents, 45.6% have consumed bats – most of which came from caves, some from restaurants. Men and farmers tend to consume a higher percentage of bat meat. And while eating properly cooked or smoked meat isn’t thought to spread pathogens, Science explains, hunters and those who prepare raw meat for consumption or sale are at risk. Click here to see typical examples of roasted bats and other situations in which human–bat contact occurs.
Further work will be needed to understand belief systems in order to develop acceptable guidance for communities in which entry into bat caves is deliberate and bat meat trade is widespread.