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Only one person – a 15 year old girl in Wisconsin -  is known to have survived without getting the rabies vaccine.  More....

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- by E. A. Zimmerman

Rabies is a virus that is almost always transmitted through the bite of an infected animal.  The virus usually incubates in the body for 3-12 weeks, during which the animal shows no signs of illness.  When the virus reaches the brain, the animal starts to show symptoms, and usually dies within a week.

Dog suspected of having rabies. CDC photo
A rabid animal may be restless, disoriented, and fearless. It may attack suddenly. In the last few days before death, jaw and throat muscles are paralyzed, leading to drooling or “foaming at the mouth.” Worldwide, an estimated 55,000 people die from rabies each year, mostly because they didn’t seek or couldn’t afford treatment, the vaccine was unavailable, or they were misdiagnosed. (Source: Scientific American) CDC photo.

Like some other mammals (raccoons, skunks, foxes, stray cats, etc.), an infected bat can be a source of rabies.  Rabies is rare in the U.S.  Less than 1% of the bat population is infected with rabies.  Rabies is nearly 100% preventable if the vaccine is administered before symptoms show up.  Unfortunately, rabies almost always results in an agonizing death if not treated before the symptoms appear.  Only one person – a 15 year old girl in Wisconsin -  is known to have survived without getting the rabies vaccine.  She did receive about $800,000 worth of drugs and treatment, including a medically induced coma, but is still considered a medical marvel. 

Most human rabies deaths are due to a unique strain of virus associated with Silver-haired bats. (Source: CDC)   Silver-haired bats are uncommon in CT.   In 22 years from 1990-2001, there were 36 documented cases of human deaths from rabies in the U.S.  Of those cases, 75% were associated with bats.  Before dying, one of the victims admitted he dunked a sick bat in his beer as a barroom prank and failed to report being bitten.  (Source: Bat Conservation Intl)   The rest of the deaths were from dog bites in developing countries like Asia and Africa, except for two dog/coyote bites in Texas. (Source: Texas A&M)

You cannot contract rabies by touching bat guano, blood or urine.  In 1995, people got pretty scared after a four year old girl in WA and a 13 year old girl in CT died from rabies.  (This was the only human case of rabies acquired in CT since 1932.)  Both children were asleep when a bat was in the house, although there was no indication that they had been bitten.  The cases prompted the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to expand their recommendations to include rabies vaccination after exposure of an unattended child, a mentally impaired or an intoxicated person to a bat in the same room.   Rabies vaccinations used to be extremely painful – that is no longer the case.  However, the series of five shots does cost $1200-2000, and insurance may not cover treatment unless there is a reasonable probability of rabies exposure. 

You can’t just look at an animal and tell whether it has rabies – it needs to be tested in a laboratory.  If a bat is behaving abnormally – e.g., out on the lawn in the middle of the day, or having trouble flying – the odds are higher that it is infected with rabies. (However, note that juvenile bats cannot fly.)  Do warn children to leave bats alone, just as they should avoid bees, unfamiliar dogs or any wild animal, even if it appears friendly.  Teach them to “Love your own, leave other animals alone.”

If you are accidentally bitten by a bat, make sure the bat is saved for examination.  (Because the rabies test is done on the brain, care must be taken not to damage the animal’s head.)  Immediately wash the bite with soap and water – this greatly reduces the chance of infection.  Promptly seek medical advice.  If the animal tests negative for rabies, shots are unnecessary.

CT law requires that all owners vaccinate cats or dogs three months or older, and keep rabies vaccinations up to date.  This is the best way to protect your furry friends.  If you think your pet has been bitten by a bat, contact a vet immediately and have the bat tested. 

While it makes sense to be cautious around wild animals, that does not mean you should fear bats. "Bats are one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated wildlife species," says Jenny Dickson, a Wildlife Diversity Program biologist for the CT DEP. Bats control insects in backyards and on farms, pollinate flowers and spread seeds in the rainforest. Studies of bats have contributed to advances in navigation, medicine, and development of alternative fuels like gasohol. To learn more about bats and building bat houses, as well as dealing with nuisance bat encounters, write to the DEP Wildlife Diversity Program, P.O. Box 1550, Burlington, CT 06013, or go to www.ct.dep and type in “bat fact sheet” in the search box.

NOTE: A bat flying around during the daytime in temperatures at or below freezing may also be a symptom of White Nose Syndrome.

Originally published in the Villager newspapers on November 14, 2008




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