Bats and Rabies: Not Just a Scary Halloween Story

Illinois recently saw its first human rabies death since 1954, and experts with the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) caution people to seek treatment if they are bitten by a bat. The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. Without preventive treatment, rabies is typically fatal.

“Rabies has the highest mortality rate of any disease,” said IDPH director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. “However, there is lifesaving treatment for individuals who quickly seek care after being exposed to an animal with rabies. If you think you may have been exposed to rabies, immediately seek medical attention and follow the recommendations of healthcare providers and public health officials.”

While cases of human rabies in the United States are rare with only 1 to 3 cases reported each year, rabies exposures are still common with an estimated 60,000 Americans receiving the post-exposure vaccination series each year.

The 80-year-old who died from rabies exposure woke in his home with a bat on his neck. The bat was captured and tested positive for rabies. The individual was advised he needed to start post-exposure rabies treatment but declined.

If an animal bite occurs, wash wound thoroughly with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately. If you find yourself in close proximity to a bat and are not sure if you were exposed, do not release the bat as it should be appropriately captured for rabies testing. Call your doctor or local health department to help determine if you could have been exposed to rabies and if you need preventive treatment. Call your local animal care and control to safely remove the bat.

If the bat is available for testing and the results are negative, preventive treatment is not needed.  The only way rabies can be confirmed in a bat is through laboratory testing.  You cannot tell just by looking at a bat if it has rabies.

According to IDPH, so far this year, 30 bats have tested positive for rabies in Illinois. More than 1,000 bats are tested for rabies each year in Illinois due to a possible exposure. Approximately three percent of tested bats are positive for rabies.

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health