Host and viral ecology determine bat rabies seasonality and maintenance.


Rabies is an acute viral infection that is typically fatal. Most rabies modeling has focused on disease dynamics and control within terrestrial mammals (e.g., raccoons and foxes). As such, rabies in bats has been largely neglected until recently. Because bats have been implicated as natural reservoirs for several emerging zoonotic viruses, including SARS-like corona viruses, henipaviruses, and lyssaviruses, understanding how pathogens are maintained within a population becomes vital. Unfortunately, little is known about maintenance mechanisms for any pathogen in bat populations. We present a mathematical model parameterized with unique data from an extensive study of rabies in a Colorado population of big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) to elucidate general maintenance mechanisms. We propose that life history patterns of many species of temperate-zone bats, coupled with sufficiently long incubation periods, allows for rabies virus maintenance. Seasonal variability in bat mortality rates, specifically low mortality during hibernation, allows long-term bat population viability. Within viable bat populations, sufficiently long incubation periods allow enough infected individuals to enter hibernation and survive until the following year, and hence avoid an epizootic fadeout of rabies virus. We hypothesize that the slowing effects of hibernation on metabolic and viral activity maintains infected individuals and their pathogens until susceptibles from the annual birth pulse become infected and continue the cycle. This research provides a context to explore similar host ecology and viral dynamics that may explain seasonal patterns and maintenance of other bat-borne diseases.

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