Editor’s Note: The anecdote given in this story is the personal experience of the writer and is offered as an exception due to its uncommon and illustrative value.
Spotting him flopping on her backyard lawn, a St. George resident discovered a sick bat in the summer of 2010. Mindful that bats can carry rabies, she carefully collected that bat in a shoebox and coordinated his rescue.
Giving him a gentle farewell tap on the back, she handed him over to Urban Wildlife Specialist Martin Schijf of Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources. Happy ending? No.
The bat died shortly after being collected and was tested for rabies.
A week or so later, that would-be rescuer had just checked into a hotel for the night when she received a panic-ridden call from Lisa Starr of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.
Starr’s alert was: “The bat you tried to rescue tested positive for rabies. We urge you to go directly to the emergency room wherever you are, do not wait until morning, do not consider the cost – if you don’t you may die.”
Rabies derives from a virus most commonly contracted through exposure to mucous, saliva or tissue from an infected animal. Eight reported instances of the virus communicated human-to-human have occurred through corneal and organ transplants (http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/exposure/), In those, the virus was hosted in the transplant donors but did not rise to the disease until it was transplanted into the corneal / organ recipient.
The rabies virus can lie dormant in the body for years (studies show as long as 24 years) before giving rise to the rabies disease.
The only way to identify if you have actually contracted the rabies virus is by its development into rabies encephalitis, an infectious disease affecting the brain and central nervous system.
Once exposed, if not treated, every time someone develops a fever, fatigue, irritability, headache or other such symptoms, they won’t know if it is a simple case of the flu or if it might be rabies. As the rabies disease develops, symptoms can include agitation, hallucinations, muscle spasms, seizures, coma and paralysis.
Human rabies is almost always fatal.
“There is no cure,” Starr emphasized.
In Washington County and surrounding counties (five in total), Starr accounts for reported cases of rabies exposure or possible exposure from bats in recent years.
“There were six in 2008, four in 2009 and four in 2010. These are only those rabies exposures related to bats,” she said.
The post-exposure treatment is prophylaxis, consisting of a series of rabies vaccinations on a strict schedule over weeks combined with an initial shot of an immunoglobulin, an antibody that acts against the rabies virus.
Contrary to graphic legends of long needles driving 20 or more shots into the stomach, the treatment is relatively undaunting. Shots are given in the arm or thigh, introducing the vaccine into deep muscle tissue – much like a flu shot.
The rabies vaccine is controlled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It is not available through a private physician and sometimes not immediately on hand at local hospitals. Despite the simple diagnosis that directs the treatment, a person exposed typically must obtain it through the emergency room.
For these reasons, It is expensive (easily a few thousand dollars). The costs vary, and to an insured patient these depend upon policy provisions on co-pays, deductibles and the like, especially for ER visits.
If you are exposed to a rabies risk, wash the exposed area immediately with soap and water, then contact your medical professional for assessment and treatment directives.
Better still, do not touch that bat - or any other sick animal in the wild; skunks, fox, coyotes, raccoons and dogs are among animals commonly known to carry rabies. Keep your dogs’ rabies vaccinations current – dogs encounter rabies carriers more easily than you do.
And when you notice an animal that is either misplaced or appears to be sick or wounded, contact the appropriate agencies that are staffed and equipped with the resources to attend to these kinds of needs.
Schijf said the best choices are either of your local Animal Control or Division of Wildlife Resources (435-879-8694).
“We are the two agencies that deal with wild animals; other facilities or agencies generally just redirect these kinds of needs to Wildlife Resources, so it is always the best bet to call us directly,” he said.