Researchers bust bat rabies stereotype
Bats tend to have a bad reputation. They sleep all day, party at night, and are commonly thought to be riddled with rabies. A study by University of Calgary researchers has confirmed that bats are not as disease-ridden as the stigma suggests. “The notion that bats have high rates of rabies is not true,” says Brandon Klug, a graduate student at the University of Calgary and the lead author of a paper published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases.
Facts about Bats and Rabies
All mammals can contract and carry rabies, however bats are not asymptomatic carriers of the disease. In reality, bats contract rabies far less than other animals. Less than 1/2 of 1% of all bats may contract the disease. A variety of wild animals (rabies vector species) can catch rabies, including foxes, skunks, raccoons, coyotes and bats. Cats and dogs and even livestock can also contract rabies.
There are zero to two human deaths per year from bat rabies in the United States. A person living in the U.S. is more likely to catch leprosy or the plague than to contract rabies from a bat. Throughout the world 30,000+ people die from the disease each year – 99% of these deaths come from contact with rabid dogs. In the United States, however, due to successful vaccination programs, contracting rabies from dogs and cats is now rare.
If you are awake and conscious, you will likely feel a bat bite because they feel like sharp needle jabs. According to the United States Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people usually know when they have been bitten by a bat. However, a bat bite can be superficial and not easily noticed. Bats have small teeth which may leave marks that are not easily seen, so there are situations in which you should seek medical advice even in the absence of an obvious bite wound. For example, if you awaken and find a bat in your room (which means you could have been bitten while asleep), see a bat in the room of an unattended child, or see a bat near a mentally impaired or intoxicated person, seek medical advice and have the bat tested.
Rabies is nearly always transmitted through a bite. Although rare, exposures can also occur from contact between infected saliva or nervous tissues and open wounds or the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, or mouth. The principal source of rabies exposure from bats is through careless handling. According CDC, people cannot get rabies just from seeing a bat in an attic, in a cave, or at a distance. In addition, people cannot get rabies from having contact with bat guano (feces), blood, or urine, or from touching a bat on its fur (even though bats should never be handled!). The rabies virus has never been isolated from bat blood, urine or feces, and there is no evidence of air-borne transmission in buildings. Two cases of aerosol transmission were reported in the 1950s in Texas caves that support very unusual environments. However, no similar cases have occurred since, despite the fact that many thousands of people explore bat caves each year. No such transmission has occurred outside or in buildings.
Like all mammals, bats produce saliva to moisten their food and keep their mouths comfortable, however, they do not produce enough saliva to drip on people while in flight or roosting. And, like people and all other mammals, a bat may occasionally sneeze. All mammals can succumb to respiratory problems and allergies that may produce an occasionally sneeze. However, just like we would have a hard time running while also sneezing, a bat would not be capable of flying over people while also sneezing.
There is no evidence that rabies from bats has ever triggered an outbreak in other animals. It occasionally does spill over into other species, causing individual animals to die, but even this is apparently rare. Despite the fact that numerous carnivores gather to feed on the 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats at Bracken Cave, Texas, no outbreaks of rabies are known from this source. However, the presence or absence of bats is irrelevant to the fact that all dogs and cats should be vaccinated. Two cases have been documented of dogs contracting bat rabies variants between 2001-2010, and rabies transmission to cats has also been documented.
The largest urban bat populations consist almost exclusively of colonial species, and there is no evidence linking them to increased transmission to humans. Tens of thousands of people have closely observed the emergence of 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats at the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas each summer for over 16 years without incident. In fact, though Austin, San Antonio and several other Texas Hill Country towns likely support the highest bat densities in America, they have recorded no human cases of bat-transmitted rabies.
Although there are educated members of the media and health officials who provide factual information about bats and rabies, many incidents involving bats are ridiculously distorted, causing people to over-react in ways that increase rather than decrease the risk of contracting rabies. Over-the-top warnings made by a health officials who are ignorant of the facts also lead to increase risks of human/bat contact. Attempts to illegally poison or exclude bats from buildings using inappropriate methods can dramatically increase human contact, as sick or homeless bats scatter to exposed positions throughout entire neighborhoods where they are more likely to come into contact with children and pets.
The most progressive tool we can use to fight this disease is education and common sense. Keeping domestic pets vaccinated against rabies is also critical in rabies prevention. Understanding how to peacefully co-exist with bats, teaching children to never handle bats and never attempting to rescue a bat bare-handed will minimize the risk of contracting the disease. Ninety to 95% of sick bats are not rabid, they may be grounded with other illnesses such as pneumonia, white nose syndrome, etc. However, any animal bite (domestic or wild) should be reported immediately to a family physician or public health professional for evaluation as a possible rabies exposure. Bat rabies has been implicated in most human rabies cases acquired domestically in the United States during the last 25 years, however, this does not mean the disease is widespread. Unlike skunks, raccoons and other wildlife, the small size of North American bats makes them appear harmless so people may handle them unwisely. Additionally, people who have been bitten might not bother to seek the treatment necessary to save their lives. It’s important to remember that any grounded bat is more likely to be sick, therefore bats should never be rescued barehanded. Any bat that bites a human should be tested for rabies as soon as possible, and post-exposure treatment should begin immediately unless the bat is confirmed negative.
Vaccinations are no longer administered in the abdomen. Injections are typically administered in the upper-arm or thigh. To most people the injections are relatively painless, like a flu shot or a tetanus shot.