Monday Medical: Protect yourself from rabies

Disease fatalities most often caused by bat bites

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Additional information on rabies may be obtained from CDPHE at www.cdphe.state.c... and from the CDC at www.cdc.gov/rabie...>

Everyone has a bat story. One particular family has a bat story that's hard to top.

During the night in a Routt County cabin they rented for a family reunion, a couple discovered a bat was in bed with them and had bitten the husband's finger. The wife killed the bat with a shoe, put it in a bag and took it to a veterinarian the next day, where it tested positive for rabies.

The couple and their son, who had slept in the same room, started the rabies shot series. Although the wife and son did not have any known bites, treatment was recommended for them because they were asleep in the room and could not exclude the possibility of a bite.

Rabies is transmitted through an infected animal's saliva, usually from a bite or scratch. The rabies virus attacks the brain and nervous system and leads to death, once symptoms appear. Because rabies is deadly unless you are vaccinated, treatment may be necessary in some situations were the possibility of a bite cannot be eliminated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends contacting your health care provider to assess your exposure to bats if you:

- Find a bat in the room in which you were sleeping.

- Find a bat with an unattended, small child.

- Find a bat in a room with someone mentally unable to assess bat contact due to disability, intoxication or other factors.

Bat bites can be difficult to detect. Bat teeth are very tiny and sharp; a bite may be no larger than a pin prick and may not be visible at all. In the U.S., most rabies fatalities during the past 20 years have been caused by bat bites.

Bat rabies exists in every county in Colorado. On average, 30-50 rabies-positive bats are confirmed each year by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) laboratory.

Seventeen cases of bat rabies have been reported this year. Rabies can be confirmed only through lab testing of the infected animal.

Other carriers of rabies include skunks, raccoons and foxes in some parts of the country. Colorado authorities are closely monitoring 'skunk rabies' spreading in eastern Colorado counties, though only bat rabies have been reported from most of the state during the past 30 years, including Routt County.

"In eastern Colorado, we are seeing the skunk strain of rabies circulating farther west than at any time in the last 30 years," state epidemiologist John Pape said. "The problem is, skunks are highly efficient at transmitting rabies to other animals. When you see skunk rabies, the risk of infected dogs, cats and cows goes up substantially.

"Although bats don't transmit the rabies virus as efficiently as larger animals, we have documented 'spill-over' infections from bats to other animals," he added. "Thus, it is important that pet owners make sure their dogs' and cats' rabies vaccinations are up to date and that children are advised not to approach bats or other wild animals."

Routt County Environmental Health and CDPHE make these rabies prevention suggestions:

- Keep your pets' rabies vaccinations current.

- Keep pet food inside.

- Teach children to stay away from wild or dead animals.

- Do not allow pets to roam freely.

- Do not feed wild animals.

- Contact your veterinarian if your pet is bitten or scratched by a wild animal.

- Educate yourself about bat proofing techniques if you have bats roosting in your house.

Bats should be left alone, unless contact with a pet or person has occurred. Even then, don't try to catch the bats yourself; contact animal control for assistance.

If bats are inside your home, don't release them outdoors unless health authorities have told you that testing is not necessary.

Suspected rabid animals should be reported immediately to Routt County Environmental Health at 879-0185. Persons with possible rabies exposure should consult a physician without delay.

Janice Poirot, RN, is a public health nurse with Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.

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