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Toph Allen

Research Scientist

Toph Allen

Toph Allen, Research Scientist at EcoHealth Alliance, applies his expertise in social science, epidemiology and statistical modeling to improve our understanding of disease emergence.
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Bat Conservation and Health

The Issue

bat

Bats are an ecologically vital group of mammals, representing over 20 percent of all mammalian diversity with more than 1,200 species.  Fruit-eating bats pollinate our trees and disperse seeds - ensuring the health of more than 50 percent of the old world rainforest, while insect eating bats here in the United States are responsible for controlling agricultural pests as well as mosquitos. 

Bats have also been recognized as reservoirs of several important emerging pathogens that impact human and livestock health, such as Nipah virus, SARS, Ebola, and several other viruses. These viruses have emerged largely due to human activities that alter the environment and bring bats, people, and livestock into closer contact.  Bats are currently being threatened globally by habitat destruction; unabated hunting; and here in the United States, by a deadly fungal disease called White Nose Syndrome, which has decimated populations in the eastern United States and Canada and threatens certain species with extinction.  We face an important challenge in our efforts to protect these important animals from hunting, habitat loss, and disease, while striving to understand the complex situations that cause bat viruses to spill over into human and animal populations and also protect human and domestic animal health.

EcoHealth Alliance's Response: Science that promotes conservation and health.

For well over a decade, EcoHealth Alliance scientists have dedicated time and resources to studying diseases in bat populations, and simultaneously protecting these gentle creatures from extinction. Since our 2002 investigation into the emergence of Nipah virus, and in 2003 our discovery of a bat origin of SARS coronavirus, we have generated an increasing amount of scientific evidence that these diseases emerge because of human activities such as agricultural expansion and wildlife trade, and that the best way to prevent the emergence of bat-borne pathogens is to improve our understanding of bat ecology and change the way we impact their environment.  We have expanded our efforts to study the ecology of bat-borne viruses globally, collaborating with local scientists throughout the world to study viruses that threaten public health and to discover novel viruses that may have the potential to do so, in an effort to predict outbreaks and protect human and animal health, while still promoting the importance of protecting bats and their habitats. 

For example, in Bangladesh, Nipah virus outbreaks occur annually in rural communities, with mortality rates as high as 100 percent.  Through our collaborative research with ICDDRB, funded by the National Institutes of Health, we know that Nipah virus is carried by the Indian flying fox - a large fruit bat that is vitally important to agriculture throughout South Asia, and that spillover of this virus occurs when date palm sap - a delicacy harvested in western Bangladesh, is contaminated by bats as they drink from the collection vessels.  This agricultural practice has created the opportunity for humans to be exposed to a bat virus that otherwise would not occur, and the solution is simple - cover date palm pots, prevent bats from contaminating sap, and the risk of spillover will be significantly reduced. 

At the same time, we promote conservation of these bats through ecological research, in partnership with federal wildlife agencies, and through educational outreach to the public.  In Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia, we are working with local partners to promote community awareness of the importance of flying foxes.  In 2009, we conducted a study of bat migration and the impact of hunting in Malaysia, in partnership with the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks, showing that flying foxes are migratory and require international management and protection from hunting which has been occurring at unsustainable levels.  Protection for flying foxes has since increased in Malaysia, and we continue to work closely with the wildlife department to better understand bat diversity and abundance across different habitat types in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, Borneo.   

In additional to our in-depth investigations of Nipah virus, SARS, and other diseases, EcoHealth Alliance is at the forefront of viral discovery, finding more than 100 novel viruses in bats from around the world, including some that may have given rise to hepatitis C and related viruses long ago.  By understanding the origins of human disease, we may be able to prevent the emergence of similar viruses and help save lives.

EcoHealth Scientists are highly experienced in safe wildlife capture and take great care to work with bats and other animals in a humane way - using non-destructive sampling techniques that include catching, sampling, and releasing bats on site, and using anesthesia where appropriate to minimize stress in the bats.  EcoHealth Alliance scientists have described these techniques, as well as the importance of bat conservation, in a manual on bat disease investigation that was distributed globally by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Our scientists also serve as scientific advisors to conservation organizations, including the Lubee Bat Conservancy, the Southeast Asian Bat Conservation Research Unit, and the IUCN Bat Specialist Group.

 

Experts

Peter Daszak

Peter Daszak

President & Disease Ecologist
PhD, Parasitology

Jonathan H. Epstein

Jonathan H. Epstein

Associate Vice President
DVM, MPH, cert. International Veterinary Medicine

Kevin J. Olival

Kevin J. Olival

Senior Research Scientist
NIH Fogarty U.S. Global Health Postdoctoral Scientist
MA, Conservation Biology
PhD, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

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