ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Can Traditional Bat Hunts Cause Disease Outbreaks in India?

Natural hosts of some of the most deadly emerging viruses such as Ebola, bats are harvested in an annual ritual by one tribe in Nagaland. This practice, endangering both public health and biodiversity, can lead to the emergence of novel infectious diseases. A concerted and multipronged effort will have to be made to prevent, contain and respond to emerging zoonotic diseases.

This article, along with photographs, was earlier posted on the Web Exclusives section of EPW website. It can be viewed at http://www. epw.in/web-exclusives/bat-hunts-and-diseaseoutbreaks.html

The ideas for this work originated while doing research in Uma Ramakrishnan’s Lab at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. I would like to acknowledge V V Robin from the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru and Balaji Chattopadhyay from the National University of Singapore, for discussions and comments. This work was funded by the Ravi Sankaran Inlaks fellowship (Small Grant) and the Rufford Small Grant, the UK.

Of late, the world has witnessed an increase in the number of emerging infectious diseases (EID) (Jones et al 2008). The ongoing Ebola virus outbreak, which began in early 2014 in West Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Mali), and the swine flu (H1N1) outbreak in India in 2009 and then again in early 2015 are some well-known examples. Such EID events are dominated by zoonosis (infections that occur in both humans and animals), and a majority of these originate in wildlife (Jones et al 2008). For example, the origin of the ongoing Ebola virus outbreak may be linked to bats (Saéz et al 2015). History is replete with such examples.

During the late 1990s, the Hendra virus emerged in Australia among horses and humans, and it is thought to have originated from fruit bats (Plowright et al 2011). Moving across the Indian Ocean, a close relative of the Hendra virus, the Nipah virus emerged in Malaysia (1998), Bangladesh (2001) and India (2002). This virus killed dozens of date palm sap farmers. As sensationalised in recent books and movies, a number of such infectious diseases have originated from wild animals, many of whom live in close proximity to humans. In fact, around two-thirds of these emerging human infectious disease events are zoonotic, of which around 70% originate in wildlife (Jones et al 2008).

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