Global & Disaster Medicine

Uganda Python Cave, Egyptian fruit bats, and the deadly Marburg virus


Deep inside the forests of Uganda, Python Cave swarms with thousands of Egyptian fruit bats. CDC scientists have found that many of these bats carry the deadly Marburg virus, a close cousin to Ebola.

Tourists visiting the cave have contracted Marburg, and nearby villages have experienced devastating outbreaks.

But predicting which villages are at risk is challenging. What health experts really need to know is where the bats go at night to better understand how the virus is transmitted to humans. To answer that question, CDC scientists have spearheaded a small pilot project with Ugandan experts to put GPS units on the backs of bats to track their movements. It’s wild work but the risk will have been worth it if the information they get can help shed light on where the bats are going and how they get there. Operating a mobile lab in a remote jungle has its challenges, not to mention monkeys- lots of them. In the heart of Queen Elizabeth National Park, scientists trail through one and a half kilometers of terrain to reach the entrance of the cave as nearby hippos, elephants and zebras take notice. Besides bats, Python Cave is full of sharp rocks, ants, ticks, and-of course-snakes. So scientists must wear head-to-toe protective gear to safely work under these conditions. One by one, these wing flapping mammals are captured in fabric bags. Back at the mobile lab, scientists carefully glue a small GPS unit onto the bat’s backs, in a place that doesn’t interfere with their ability to fly.The bats are then released to go back to the cave. When evening falls, the magic begins. As the bats fly out to forage, their routes are tracked by satellite.

The project at Python Cave has shown that some bats fly dozens of miles in a single night and visit other local caves. Scientists hope that the information from this project will help better predict which areas are most at risk for Marburg, so the next outbreak can be stopped before it ever starts.

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