Chapter one introduces the concept of disease emergence and factors associated with emergence. The role of wildlife as reservoirs of emerging diseases and specifically the history of bats as reservoirs of zoonotic diseases is previewed. Finally, the aims and structure of the thesis are outlined.
In Chapter two, the literature relating to the emergence of Hendra virus, Nipah virus, and Australian bat lyssavirus, the biology of flying foxes, methodologies for investigating wildlife reservoirs of disease, and the modelling of disease in wildlife populations is reviewed.
Chapter three describes the search for the origin of Hendra virus and investigations of the ecology of the virus. In a preliminary survey of wildlife, feral and pest species, 6/21 Pteropus alecto and 5/6 P. conspicillatus had neutralizing antibodies to Hendra virus. A subsequent survey found 548/1172 convenience-sampled flying foxes were seropositive. Analysis using logistic regression identified species, age, sample method, sample location and sample year, and the interaction terms age *species and age* sample method as significantly associated with HeV serostatus. Analysis of a subset of the data also identified a significant or near-significant association between time of year of sampling and HeV serostatus. In a retrospective survey, 16/68 flying fox sera collected between 1982 and 1984 were seropositive. Targeted surveillance of non-flying fox wildlife species found no evidence of Hendra virus. The findings indicate that flying foxes are a likely reservoir host of Hendra virus, and that the relationship between host and virus is mature.
The transmission and maintenance of Hendra virus in a captive flying fox population is investigated in Chapter four. In study 1, neutralizing antibodies to HeV were found in 9/55 P. poliocephalus and 4/13 P. alecto. Titres ranged from 1:5 to 1:160, with a median of 1:10. In study 2, blood and throat and urogenital swabs from 17 flying foxes from study 1 were collected weekly for 14 weeks. Virus was isolated from the blood of a single aged non-pregnant female on one occasion. In study 3, a convenience sample of 19 seropositive and 35 seronegative flying foxes was serologically monitored monthly for all or part of a two-year period. Three individuals (all pups born during the study) seroconverted, and three individuals that were seropositive on entry became seronegative. Two of the latter were pups born during the study period. Dam serostatus and pup serostatus at second bleed were strongly associated when data from both years were combined (p<0.001; RR=9, 95%CI 1.42 to 57.12). The serial titres of 19 flying foxes monitored for 12 months or longer showed a rising and falling pattern (10), a static pattern (1) or a falling pattern (8). The findings suggest latency and vertical transmission are features of HeV infection in flying foxes.
Chapter five describes Australian bat lyssavirus surveillance in flying foxes, insectivorous bats and archived museum bat specimens. In a survey of 1477 flying foxes, 69/1477 were antigen-positive (all opportunistic specimens) and 12/280 were antibody-positive. Species (p<0.001), age (p=0.02), sample method (p<0.001) and sample location (p<0.001) were significantly associated with fluorescent antibody status. There was also a significant association between rapid focus fluorescent inhibition test status and species (p=0.01), sample method (p=0.002) and sample location (p=0.002). There was a near-significant association (p=0.067) between time of year of sampling and fluorescent antibody status. When the analysis was repeated on P. scapulatus alone, the association stronger (p=0.054). A total of 1234 insectivorous bats were surveyed, with 5/1162 antigen–positive (all opportunistic specimens) and 10/390 antibody-positive. A total of 137 archived bats from 10 species were tested for evidence of Australian bat lyssavirus infection by immunohistochemistry (66) or rapid focus fluorescent inhibition test (71). None was positive by either test but 2 (both S. flaviventris) showed round basophilic structures consistent with Negri bodies on histological examination. The findings indicate that Australian bat lyssavirus infection is endemic in Australian bats, that submitted sick and injured bats (opportunistic specimens) pose an increased public health risk, and that Australian bat lyssavirus infection may have been present in Australian bats 15 years prior to its first description.
In Chapter six, deterministic state-transition models are developed to examine the dynamics of HeV infection in a hypothetical flying fox population. Model 1 outputs demonstrated that the rate of transmission and the rate of recovery are the key parameters determining the rate of spread of infection, and that population size is positively associated with outbreak size and duration. The Model 2 outputs indicated that that long-term maintenance of infection is inconsistent with lifelong immunity following infection and recovery.
Chapter seven discusses alternative hypotheses on the emergence and maintenance of Hendra virus and Australian bat lyssavirus in Australia. The preferred hypothesis is that both Hendra virus and Australian bat lyssavirus are primarily maintained in P. scapulatus populations, and that change in the population dynamics of this species due to ecological changes has precipitated emergence.
Future research recommendations include further observational, experimental and/or modeling studies to establish or clarify the route of HeV excretion and the mode of transmission in flying foxes, the roles of vertical transmission and latency in the transmission and maintenance of Hendra virus in flying foxes, and the dynamics of Hendra virus infection in flying foxes.