Scottish bat worker dies after contracting rabies

By Dan Gledhill
Monday 25 November 2002 01:00

The bat conservation worker who contracted a rare form of rabies from being bitten by one of the animals died last night after spending a fortnight in intensive care.

David McRae, 55, a volunteer naturalist who had spent 15 years working with bats, had been critically ill in Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. He was bitten while on a field exercise in the summer. Mr McRae, from Guthrie, Angus, died hours after laboratory tests confirmed he was suffering from European bat lyssavirus (EBL), a type of rabies found in several northern European countries. There is no known cure for the disease.

It was the first case of EBL in Britain for 100 years.

Mr McRae had been licensed by Scottish Natural Heritage, the national wildlife agency, to work with bats as part of a research project. A spokesman said yesterday: "This is a bleak day for everyone involved in conservation in Scotland. Every one is completely devastated at this terrible news."

Doctors, who had feared an influx of panic calls from the public when news of Mr McRae's illness was released, repeated their advice that only people who came into direct contact with bats were at any risk of contracting the disease. NHS Taysideconfirmed that clinical staff closely involved in caring for Mr McRae, who was treated in an isolation unit, would continue to be offered advice and vaccinations.

His partner, Carole, and his two adult sons had also been at his bedside when he became critically ill.

The wildlife artist, who had had close contact with bats over many years, was one of several volunteers bitten on the field trip he led in Angus this summer. Mr McRae was admitted to hospital two weeks ago after complaining of feeling unwell. None of his colleagues had displayed symptoms.

It was reported last week that none of the group had received inoculations recommended against EBL, which causes fever, paralysis and an eventual lapse into coma.

Scottish Natural Heritage said that since first hearing of the case, it had expected the diagnosis to be confirmed. The organisation has suspended all but a handful of the 100 bat licences issued in Scotland until its non-compulsory vaccination policy has been reviewed.

Several volunteers and Scottish Natural Heritage staff have come forward since Mr McRae's case, with concerns about past bat bites. They are receiving treatment.

In mainland Europe, where the EBL strain is common, there have been only three cases of humans catching rabies since 1977. Only two bats in Britain have been found with EBL in recent years. Both were Daubenton bats, a tiny animal that feeds by skimming over water. It is thought to have been this type of bat that bit Mr McRae in the summer, although exactly when he contracted the virus is not known.

The conservationist, whose work as a professional wildlife artist frequently took him abroad, had a small converted aviary for bats at his home.

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