A family of four made the right call after finding a big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) near the bedroom areas of their Gig Harbor home Aug. 22. After phoning the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department for advice, the family isolated the bat and followed proper handling procedures to safely capture it for state laboratory testing. Three days later, the results confirmed the second case of a rabid bat found in Pierce County this year.
The family, a married couple in their 30s with two children under age 10, underwent a series of post-exposure-prophylaxis (PEP) treatment for rabies. PEP vaccination requires a series of four carefully timed intramuscular injections administered over a period of two weeks. Because the bat was found near the sleeping areas of the house, any of them could have been exposed while they slept, even without evidence of scratches or bite marks.
The most common way for rabies to be transmitted from an infected bat to a human is with a bite; bats have very small teeth and a bite mark may be hard to detect. Rabies can also be passed to humans from bat saliva; if the bat comes in contact with a person’s eyes, mouth, nose or even a fresh scratch, the human will become infected.
Human deaths from rabies are extremely rare in the United States.
Washington state went over five decades without a single case of human rabies until 1995 when a 4-year-old Centralia girl was taken to a local emergency room with flu-like symptoms. Her condition worsened and she was airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Seattle.
Family members later recalled, during an interview with doctors, having discovered a bat in the room where the girl had slept at a relative’s home the month before. Based on that information, diagnostic testing for rabies on the girl was initiated and confirmed. Seeing no marks on the child at the time of exposure, the incident went unreported and was nearly forgotten. The family explained they removed the bat from the house, killed it and buried the remains in the backyard. Health officials ultimately exhumed what was left of the bat. Analysis confirmed the strain was identical and most likely responsible for the girl’s death.
Rabies was entirely unsuspected before autopsy results confirmed the death of a 64-year-old Mason County man in 1997 in what the Center for Disease Control reported as the first ever case of human rabies in the United States involving a big brown bat. The man lived in a wooded area near a lake where bats were common, but no bat infestation was found in or around his home. His relatives had no knowledge of him having any contact with bats.
Insectivorous bats are the only reservoir for rabies in Washington, with less than 1 percent of healthy bats carrying the virus. Rabies reservoirs in raccoons, skunks and foxes are predominant in other regions of the country. Of the sick and injured bats submitted by local health departments, Washington State Department of Health reports between 3-to-5 percent of bats tested positive for rabies.
See also Lisa Bryan’s story on why you should love bats in this month’s issue.
If instructed to capture the bat, always wear heavy-leather or thick rubber gloves. Never handle a bat, dead or alive, with bare hands.
Place a plastic food container over the bat, then slide the lid under the container and tape the top. Punch small air holes in the lid of the container using a nail or small screwdriver. Place the bat in a cool, quiet area away from children and contact the TPCHD for further instructions.
Learn more about bat exposure at www.tpchd.org/bats.