Bats can’t contract AIDS, but a disease that’s destroying their populations creates a similar problem experienced by those with the virus.
We’ve written about white nose syndrome before and the damage it’s doing to our furry flying friends. The fungus infects the bats while they’re hibernating and their immune systems are pretty much idling for the winter. While the white blood cells’ guards are down, the fungus attacks, damaging skin, muscle, and connective tissue.
But what happens when many bats wake up in spring can be even more harmful. Once the bats return to business as usual after hibernation, their immune system starts back up again. Sensing the infection, the immune system goes into overdrive, attacking not only the fungus but also healthy tissue. The result is called IRIS; immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome, and it’s basically an antibody scorch-and-burn.
According to U.S. Geological Survey scientist Carol Meteyer, this is the only instance of this phenomenon found in nature. The only other observed instance is in AIDS patients. Sometimes people with the virus can see the same overzealous antibody attack after getting antiretroviral treatment and their immune system recovers. Their own means of fighting infection does often irreparable damage to their bodies.
While scientists work to figure out exactly how to get rid of white nose syndrome, they’ll also be studying this immune system DEFCON 1 for clues to help AIDS and HIV patients.