The only known zoonotic disease associated with bats in the UK is rabies caused by European Bat Lyssaviruses (EBLV). There are two known types: EBLV1 and EBLV2. These are not the classical rabies virus, which has never been found in a bat in Europe. EBLVs have only been found in a small number of bats in the UK. There is no risk if you do not handle bats. For more information visit the bats and rabies pages.
Globally, bats are considered ‘reservoirs’ (long-term hosts) of a number of viruses, many of which are not harmful and cannot be passed to humans.
In many cases the viruses bats carry do not appear to have any impact on the health of the bats. This may be because bats have evolved over many millions of years and many viruses have evolved with them, meaning that they do not cause disease in the bats themselves.
The relationship between bats and infectious diseases is complex, and this has been recognised by the EcoHealth Alliance: "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."
The special nature of the bat immune system
Some bat life-history traits may explain why bats are reservoirs of a number of viruses. This includes the relatively long life spans of bats, the distances that bats cover by flight when feeding, commuting or migrating and their often social roosting behaviour (sometimes in close proximity to people). There is obviously some variation between species in these traits but one thing all bats have in common is their ability to fly and it is this trait in particular that may be the reason that bats are able to carry, but not be affected by, many viruses.
Flight is very energetically expensive and it is believed that this has resulted in bats developing excellent immune systems which allow them to fight off disease.
Understanding how bats do this may lead to benefits for human health. In fact there are many aspects of bats' ability to fight disease that researchers believe could ultimately lead to advances in human health care.