Backpackers ‘misreporting’ vampire bat attacks in Colombia: bat expert

(Photo: El Mundo del Murcielago)

A bat researcher at one of Colombia’s top universities has called into question reports of foreign backpackers allegedly having been bitten by vampire bats, in an interview with Colombia Reports.

A tourist hiking recently in the hills of San Agustin, Huila was allegedly infected with rabies from a Desmodus Rotundus, a vampire bat common in Colombia and native to the Americas. The hiker was sleeping in a hut with the windows open, according to English-language news site, The City Paper.

“We have seen several cases recently of foreigners being bitten by bats,” Dr. Esperanza Martinez, public health specialist at the iCare Medical Center in Bogota said as quoted in The City Paper.

Bat bites are concerning because of the possible transmissions of rabies, a viral disease that records show can been transmitted through bat bites. Rabies, a fatal disease, requires immediate hospitalization and the administration of an anti-rabies vaccine.

But Dr. Sergio Solari, assistant biology professor and director of the Mammalogy Group at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, has cast doubt on the reports of an increase in bat bites.

“I don’t think there are that many cases right now,” Solari told Colombia Reports on Wednesday.

“What might be happening is that we’re simply seeing a larger influx of tourists and foreigners coming to Colombia to travel and see different places.”

Solari points to the fact that many areas in Colombia have become safer and more accessible in recent years to adventure tourism, often leading foreigners into areas with bat populations. Tourism to Colombia grew almost 300% between 2002 and 2013, with most of the tourism coming from areas outside of Latin America.

He maintained that tourists and those unfamiliar with the geography of Colombia should take the necessary precautions to protect themselves from possible bat exposure.

“More people are talking about Colombia, and thus more people are coming to see the great places in this country that previous security concerns had prevented,” he said.

MORE: Colombia tourism statistics

“So it’s possible that there is just a larger number of people coming to Colombia, and in popular outdoor places known for vampire bats.”

All about vampire bats

Bites might not be associated with vampire bats, less chance of rabies

Solari also noted that the bat bites that have been recorded recently “are not typical of a vampire bat” in Colombia,  inferring that perhaps some of the concerns of bat bites are coming from uninformed sources.

“When a vampire bat bites someone, it’s very obvious because the vampire bat saliva is an anticoagulant, meaning that blood from the wound keeps flowing and leaves a tiny puddle of blood. In these recent case, people are not reporting this. They’re reporting a tiny cut, but not a blood stain.”

Solari says that the symptoms associated with a vampire bite “are not immediate.” What draws attention, he says, is the blood stain that accompanies the bite.

Rabies outbreaks in Latin America mostly occurring in native populations

There have been a handful of rabies outbreaks in Latin America in the past few decades, with the outbreaks mostly occurring in native communities, according to Solari. The cases have been reported in countries such as Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

In 2004, there was a reported 46 fatal cases of rabies transmitted by vampire bats, increasing to 55 in 2005, according to a report published in the Pan-American Magazine of Public Health. Most of these cases occurred in the Amazonian regions of Brazil and rural areas of Colombia.

The 2004-2005 time period marked the largest human rabies outbreak caused by vampire bats in Colombian history. 14 deaths were reported in Birrinchao in the region of Choco in 2004 and 3 deaths in the neighboring municipality of Alto Baudo in 2005, according to a report published in the National Institute of Health’s magazine, Biomedica.

“It’s difficult because for these people, a bat bite isn’t that big of a deal: they live in the jungles and are aware that there are bats,” Solari explained. “And most of the time, vampire bats don’t carry the rabies virus.”

If you travel to Colombia…

It is feared that locals and especially foreigners traveling through the diverse geography in Colombia simply are not taking the necessary precautions to avoid being bitten that local residents take when residing in bat country.

While maintaining that the current threat of rabies transmissions by vampire bats is relatively low, Solari still urges travelers to protect themselves while in the outdoors in bat-populated areas.

“The simplest thing to do is prevention,” Solari said. “Don’t sleep outside uncovered or without a tent. Look at miners and farm workers who work in these areas, when they sleep outside of the house they always carry a plastic coat that covers their hands and feet while they sleep.”


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