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Why Are America's Bats Disappearing?

Animals
The pallid bat is native to the western U.S., where the spread of white-nose syndrome is a threat. Ivan Kuzmin / Shutterstock

By John R. Platt

It's Friday evening in Pittsburgh, and the mosquitoes are out in force. One bites at my arm and I try to slap it away. Another takes the opportunity to land on my neck. I manage to shoo this one off before it tastes blood.

I'm at Carrie Furnaces, a massive historic ironworks on the banks of Pennsylvania's Monongahela River. Stories-tall rusting structures loom all around me, as do the occasional trees poking their way out of the ground. A tour guide, leading a group from the Society of Environmental Journalists conference, tells me the soil here is full of heavy metals and other pollutants from the factory, which operated for nearly a century before closing in 1982.


Plants and trees have started to recolonize the area, but cleaning up the soil itself remains an unlikely task that could cost millions and millions of dollars—if it's even feasible. Another nearby site, he tells me, was so polluted that it couldn't be reclaimed and had to be paved over.

For a moment, as I walk the grounds around Carrie Furnaces, I wonder about the toxic substances biding their time beneath my feet. Quickly, though, I become more concerned about what's in the air—or what's missing from it. As another bug lands on my hand, I can't help but think we'd be experiencing fewer mosquito bites if Pennsylvania's bat populations had not been devastated over the past 10 years.

It's a day earlier, and the sun is still young in the morning sky. A group of journalists from the conference has piled onto a bus on our way to Laurel Caverns, the biggest cave system in Pennsylvania. With us are representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), there to tell us about a fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, best known by the name of the often-fatal disease it causes in bats, white-nose syndrome (WNS).

Since the pathogen first turned up in 2006, millions of bats have fallen victim to its deadly embrace. It often collects around their snouts, which is where the disease got its name, but that's not where the worst damage occurs. "It erodes right through their wing membranes," Robyn Niver, endangered species biologist with the USFWS, told us during the two-hour bus ride from downtown Pittsburgh. "Flight is extremely important for bats, and the fungus affects their basic ability to move around and forage for themselves."

The easily transmissible fungus also does something to bats' metabolism, causing the animals to wake up during hibernation more than twice as often as they normally would. This increase in winter activity burns up the bats' winter reserves of fat, water and electrolytes, leaving the animals hungry, thirsty and confused. "If they go out to forage in the winter, there's nothing available to them," Niver said. "They'll go out on the landscape and just die. Sometimes you'll see piles of dead bats. Other times they're just gone." Caves that once held tens of thousands of bats now, more often than not, now lie nearly empty.

Bat skulls and bones on the floor of Aeolus Cave, a white-nose syndrome site in Vermont. Ann Froschauer / USFWS

That's the case in Laurel Canyons. Before the disease turned up, the caves were the winter home of a relatively small population of hibernating bats, about 2,500 animals from four species. Last year, Canyons representative Laura Hall later told us, they counted just 12 bats.

We knew going into Laurel Canyons for our two-hour underground tour that we weren't likely to see any of the flying mammals. For one thing, it was still a few weeks before hibernation season. For another, the guides wouldn't have taken us into the bats' hibernacula. But still, knowing what we knew, the caves we explored felt eerily silent and empty.

Other Pennsylvania caves must seem even worse. Greg Turner, a mammologist and WNS researcher with the state's Bureau of Wildlife Management, shared information on bat declines throughout the state. One mine, he told us, had more than 30,000 bats in 2007. White-nose syndrome arrived just three years later. By 2013 only 155 bats remained. In cave after cave, that pattern has repeated itself.

And Pennsylvania is not alone. White-nose can now be found in 31 states and 5 Canadian provinces and has affected nine bat species, including the endangered gray bat (Myotis grisescens) and Indiana bat (M. sodalis). Some populations have fallen 99 percent or more, meaning other species could soon become officially endangered.

When the fungus first turned up—probably accidentally carried by humans from Europe, where it has no effect on the continent's bats, to a cave in Albany, New York—no one expected it to be as bad as it has become. "We all just thought, maybe it will only be in one site and it won't be a big deal," Niver said. "Then the next year happened. 2008 was a terrible year. We had mass mortality in Vermont." Some estimates suggest half a million bats died that winter.

After that the disease just "took off," she said. "We were hopeful it wasn't going to be much of anything, but every winter just was devastatingly proving us wrong. It was terrible."

Biologists around the northeast scrambled to figure out what was happening. "There were just these bats dying and there was nothing we could do," Niver said. "We didn't know what was killing them. We would have these weekly phone calls just trying to figure out who found it where and on which species. We went through all the steps of grief."

Fortunately, there was already a model for figuring out these types of pathogens: the working groups for bee colony collapse disorder. Biologists quickly organized, developed their own working group, identified the fungus and developed protocols to help slow its spread.

Those protocols for human activity, however, can only do so much when all it takes is the beat of a bat's wings to spread tiny but deadly fungal spores to all of its neighbors. And protocols can't stop bats from migrating, which has taken the fungus from coast to coast in just over a decade. As that happened, the death toll has climbed. Biologists estimate that at least five to six million bats—probably more—have died since 2007.

What is the impact of these mass bat fatalities? It's too early to know. "I feel like we're just in this huge environmental experiment," Niver told me. Scientists never had very good information on insect populations, so we don't know how exactly they're changing as the bats disappear. She suggests it's time to start keeping an eye on things like gypsy moth or tent caterpillar outbreaks, which could become a problem without bats to control the insects' populations. Other pest insects could also be a problem; a 2011 study estimated that bats provide an estimated $22.9 billion a year in economic services by eating insects that could damage crops.

Then there's the impact on the bats themselves. Some species could become endangered, if they're not already.

Meanwhile, other bats are actually changing in the face of the disease. Turner told us that some bats have started to hibernate at colder temperatures where they could be safer from the fungus, while Niver said some species have potentially started to expand their territories into habitats previously inhabited by one of the species hardest hit by the disease, the little brown bat (M. lucifugus).

The bats may also be starting to change physically or behaviorally. Turner shared data, still pending publication, which suggests that some bats that survive the initial infection in one year appear to be packing on additional weight to help them persist through their next hibernations.

Despite these minor adaptations in some populations, the future for bats in this country is precarious. Over the past year the fungus has spread to Texas and Washington state; Niver said biologists in the East are warning their colleagues in the West what to expect. The message isn't an easy one: "Don't count on anything being different enough for your bats to survive," she warns.

Survival of any bats, now, is the key. Turner told us their best hope is not that the declines will stop, only that they'll level off. "Stabilization," he said, "that's what we're hoping for."

Journalists descend into Laurel Cavern. John R. Platt

As we come to the close of our underground tour, our guide—a former steelworker named Justin—brings us into a large cavern where there's room for us to sit or lean against the rock walls. This, he tell us, is our opportunity to experience total darkness. One by one, we switch off our flashlights and headlamps. The room grows darker and darker until all light disappears. Our eyes struggle to adjust, but there's nothing they can do except send false signals to our brain.

Then Justin tells us to enjoy a moment of silence. The journalists stop talking, and for a few minutes all we can hear is the soft rustle of wind through the caverns around us.

It's peaceful, but it would have been more comforting to hear the flap of a bat's wings in the darkness.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

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Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

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"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.