Bats in northern Australian town prompt disease warning

File picture taken 20 July, 2011 of fruit bats as they hang from a tree in Gayndah, South Eastern Queensland
Image caption Hundreds of thousands of fruit bats like these arrived in the town in late February

A town in northern Australia has been invaded by more than 250,000 bats, prompting warnings of a potentially fatal disease related to rabies.

The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) warned residents in Katherine to stay away from the fruit bats, which could carry the Australian Bat Lyssavirus.

The disease can be transmitted to people if they are bitten or scratched.

Authorities have closed down the main sports ground in the town 300 km south of Darwin in the Northern Territory.

The colony of fruit bats - little red flying foxes - arrived in the town late last month. In recent days numbers have begun to fall but large numbers continue to roost on the outskirts of town, reports the BBC's Phil Mercer.

The bats could be attracted to the area by native flora, or driven to the area because of habitat destruction or changing climatic conditions, John Burke, a senior wildlife ranger, told the BBC.

''Obviously in the town area there's a lot of exotic plant species that are fruiting and flowering throughout the year,'' he said. ''So it's more like a drive-through, I suppose, a drive-through take-away.''

CDC Director Vicki Krause told Australian media that the virus was carried in bat saliva.

Some victims have died but that is rare, our correspondent adds, and a vaccination is available.

If bitten, people should wash the wound thoroughly and seek medical attention as soon as possible, Dr Krause said. Vaccinations were effective if given immediately, she added.

Experts say the presence of so many flying foxes in the Northern Territory town only takes place two or three times each decade.

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