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Two people work to attach a GPS unit to a flying fox late last month in Kandal province’s Koh Thom commune to provide better data on human-bat contact. Julien Cappelle
Two people work to attach a GPS unit to a flying fox late last month in Kandal province’s Koh Thom commune to provide better data on human-bat contact. Julien Cappelle

Disease-carrying bats to be tracked

Scientists are attaching tracking devices to a colony of flying foxes near Phnom Penh in a bid to prevent a possible outbreak of a deadly virus.

The ongoing TeleNipah Project, which began on April 18, is the first of its kind in Cambodia, said project coordinator Julien Cappelle, a disease ecologist from France who has studied bats here for four years.

“We are monitoring a colony of flying foxes to get an idea of the interface between the bats and people,” Cappelle said yesterday. “These bats can be reservoirs of nipah virus, which can infect people and domestic animals.”

The team, based out of the Pasteur Institute, will affix GPS collars to 22 bats from a pagoda roost in Kandal province’s Koh Thom commune, said Cappelle. Using location data collected from the collars, scientists will be able to determine points of human-bat contact, he said. The team will then test volunteers for nipah in those contact areas.

Nipah virus, which can spread through the bodily fluids of bats of the Pteropus genus, first emerged in Malaysia in 1998 when an outbreak centred on a pig farm resulted in more than 100 human deaths.

In 2004, nipah sprang up again in Bangladesh, where it now kills small numbers of people annually, mostly through the human consumption of raw palm sap, according to Neil Furrey, a bat expert involved in the project.

Though Cappelle’s team have found nipah in their bats, there have been no recorded human cases of the virus in Cambodia.

He noted, however, that surveys here are “not as optimal as in other countries” so it was possible some nipah virus cases in humans in the Kingdom could have gone undetected.

The TeleNipah Project is funded by the French National Centre for Space Studies and EuropeAid.

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