- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

A sharp increase in the number of rabid bats found in the District prompted city officials to issue a health alert yesterday advising residents to “bat proof” their homes and stay away from bats and other wild animals.

The Health Department last month found 14 rabid bats flying around inside homes, bringing the total for the year to 15 — the highest tally since at least 1999. The agency usually finds one or two bats a year infected with the deadly rabies virus.

More bats end up in homes this time of year because young bats are venturing off on their own and people leave doors and windows open. Anyone coming into contact with a bat should alert the health department and consult a physician.

“We are asking residents to take extra precautions to avoid exposure,” interim Health Department Director Herbert R. Tillery stated in a press release announcing the health alert. “A few people die of rabies each year in the United States because they did not recognize the risk of rabies from a bite of a wild animal and did not seek medical advice.”

Mr. Tillery urged residents to avoid physical contact with bats or other wild animals, keep pets’ rabies vaccinations up to date and “bat proof” dwellings by closing doors and windows, fixing broken window screens and securing loose shingles, vents, chimneys and other possible access points.

The agency also found eight rabid raccoons and four rabid cats this year in the District, but authorities say bats are the most common source of human rabies.

The rabies virus is transmitted in saliva from animals to humans, usually through an animal bite but in rare cases from getting infected saliva in an open wound, fresh abrasion or the mucous membrane of the nose, mouth or eye.

Early symptoms of rabies in humans are nonspecific, consisting of fever, headache, and general malaise. As the disease progresses, neurological symptoms may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing and hydrophobia or fear of water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Death usually occurs within days of the onset of symptoms.

There is no treatment for rabies after symptoms appear, though a vaccine can fend off rabies if it is administered before or soon after exposure. About 58,000 people receive the rabies vaccine each year, according to a CDC Web site on rabies, www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/rabies.

Recent improvements to the rabies test used by the health department could explain the increased numbers this year, but that does not diminish the public health risk indicated by the data, said Peggy Keller, interim director of the agency’s community hygiene bureau.

“It is still a great number and there have been a lot of bats with rabies in the houses where we’ve removed bats,” she said.

Ms. Keller advised residents not to capture bats that fly into their homes or to chase them out. Instead, back out of the room, close the door and call animal control. District residents can call 202/576-6664. Health officials will want to test the bat and determine whether the resident needs rabies treatment.

The vaccine no longer entails the dreaded 20 injections in the stomach. The treatment now is administered with a singe injection, similar to a tetanus shot, Ms. Keller said. “It’s not something to be afraid of anymore,” she said.

Residents also should not worry about being attacked by rabid bats either in their homes or outdoors, said Marie Magnuson, bat-keeper for the National Zoo.

“People hear the world rabies and they think of the ferocious form, like in the movie ‘Old Yeller.’ But bats get the dumb kind,” she said. “They get sick and can’t fly and just fall to the ground. As long as you leave them alone, you’re not going to get bit.”

She said people wrongly assume bats are akin to flying rats, but bats are more closely related to primates and are very intelligent.

Miss Magnuson said she’s never been attacked by a bat, despite working daily in a cave with 450 of them. However, she has been bitten when handling the bats. She also has been inoculated against rabies.

The most common bat species in the city is Myotis lucifugus or “little brown bat,” which weighs no more than 10 grams, about the same as a quarter. Though they may look small and harmless, they can carry the rabies virus and should never be handled, Miss Magnuson said.

The number of human deaths attributed to rabies in the United States over the past century has declined from 100 or more each year to an average of one or two each year, according to the CDC.

A Northern Virginia man died from rabies last year, the state’s first fatal case in nearly five years. The man, 25, was hospitalized with flulike symptoms in mid-February and died in mid-March. Rabies was not initially suspected.

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