Neurological Disease Tied to Eating Type of Bat
Mon Sep 2, 5:32 PM ET
By Alison McCook

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A new study provides further evidence to support the link between a neurological disease among the indigenous population on the island of Guam and a cultural tradition of eating a type of bat.



In the 1940s, a neurological disease dubbed ALS-PDC mysteriously plagued the Chamorro population of Guam, producing symptoms that resemble amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer's disease ( news - web sites) and Parkinson's. People with ALS-PDC often exhibit signs of weakness, paralysis and wasting, inevitably resulting in death.

The condition was once a leading cause of death among Chamorro adults, occurring at rates 100 times the rate of ALS in the US. However, over time, the incidence of ALS-PDC decreased among the Chamorro just as mysteriously as it first appeared.

Recently, US researchers suggested that the changing prevalence of ALS-PDC may be linked to a rise and fall in the population of the flying fox, a type of bat considered a delicacy among the Chamorro people.

According to Drs. Paul Alan Cox of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens in Kauai, Hawaii, and Oliver Sacks of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the flying fox consumes a lot of cycad seeds, which contain toxins known to cause neurological disorders.

Although the Chamorro knew the cycad seeds to be toxic and may not have snacked on them, Cox and Sacks proposed that the toxins could accumulate in the tissues of the flying fox, exposing the humans who consume them to damaging amounts of the toxins.

This theory jibes with the changes in the concentration of flying foxes on the island, which began to drop steadily in the 1940s due to their popularity as a delicacy, until they became classified as endangered.

Recently, Dr. Sandra Banack of California State University in Fullerton presented additional results linking the occurrence of ALS-PDC to the consumption of flying foxes at a joint meeting of the Ecological Society of America and the Society for Ecological Restoration in Tucson, Arizona.

Banack and her colleagues interviewed residents of two villages, asking them how often they consumed flying foxes. According to their report, men said they were more likely to eat the entire bat, while women often stuck with only the breast meat. This finding may help explain the marked gender differences in the incidence of ALS-PDC, which strikes men three times as often as women.

The researchers also learned that because the Chamorro people believe that eating the flying fox is so important, they are willing to risk fines or imprisonment to obtain the animals--imposed because the species is now considered rare.

In an interview with Reuters Health, Banack said that even though eating the bats is a deep-rooted tradition within Chamorro culture, traditions can change.

"ALS-PDC is a devastating disease," she said. "Some people are bound to hear the message and be willing to change their habits to protect their health."

Banack added that people should always use caution when eating bush meat. "Free-ranging animals--those that feed on wild plants in the environment--are eating a whole host of plant phytotoxins. Plants produce these toxins as a defense mechanism to stop animals from eating them," she said.

"We control the diet of domesticated animals and do not feed them foods high in toxins. When people eat bush meat they are eating the toxins consumed by that animal," Banack noted.

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