CDC Warns of Rise in Rabies Linked to Bats

Thursday, January 6, 2022 — Three people in the United States recently died from bat-related rabies, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. This brings the total number of rabies cases in the United States in 2021 to five.

That’s a sharp rise compared to previous years — there were no reported rabies cases in the United States during 2019 and 2020, the CDC noted. In general, the number of rabies infected bats reported to the National Rabies Surveillance System has been stable since 2007.

The last three deaths occurred over a five-week period between late September and early November in Idaho, Illinois and Texas. Among them was a child.

Two of the cases were considered avoidable exposures. In one of them, bats roosted in the victim’s home. In the second, the victim picked up the bat with her bare hands. Two victims freed the bat instead of capturing it for testing.

“We have come a long way in the United States towards reducing the number of people who get rabies each year, but this latest wave of cases is a sobering reminder that contact with bats is a real health risk,” Dr. Ryan Wallace said in a CDC press release. He’s a vet and rabies expert at the agency.

Exposure to infected bats is the leading cause of rabies in humans in the United States, accounting for 70% of cases.

If you’ve been in contact with a bat — or even think you might have one — keep this in mind: Bat bites don’t always leave a visible mark, according to the CDC. Rabies can spread through infected saliva.

You should be evaluated by a health care provider or clinical if you have any direct contact with bats – or even suspected contact with them, such as finding a bat in a room where someone is sleeping or there is an unattended child.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that none of the individuals who died did not receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which are shots that can prevent rabies from developing if they are received before symptoms start.

The four shots are given in the upper arm.

Officials said the increase in cases may be due to a lack of awareness about the dangers of rabies and the importance of getting PEP after contact.

It usually takes between three weeks and three months for symptoms to appear after exposure to bats, but it can occur more or less time.

While PEP is effective in preventing rabies until symptoms appear, rabies is almost always fatal after symptoms start, the CDC said.

This is why receiving a PEP soon after a potential exposure and before symptoms start is critical. Rabies deaths are uncommon, but about 60,000 people per year receive PEP each year to prevent the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said PEP is 100% effective if taken before symptoms appear.

It urged the agency to avoid contact with bats. If you have had contact with a bat or even think you might have it, contact your state, local health department, or animal control for help trapping the bat for testing or catching them yourself safely.

Testing the bat to determine if it has rabies can help determine if you need PEP. Then call your doctor or local public health official to assess whether a PEP is needed, said the CDC.

The three fatal cases were described on January 6 by the CDC Weekly morbidity and mortality report.

Resources

  • US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, press release, January 6, 2022

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