Rabies-positive bat confirmed at Grand Canyon; officials advise caution around wildlife

ST. GEORGE — A bat found in the Grand Canyon has tested positive for rabies. While not an uncommon occurrence, park officials are asking the public to be cautions as rabies can become fatal if contracted and left untreated.

An extracted pallid bat, one of the many unique bats within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. | Photo by and courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

According to a press release from the National Park Service, the infected bat was collected Aug. 6 at the Whitmore Helipad, located along the Colorado River near river mile 187, and subsequently tested positive for rabies.

The bat did not come into direct contact with park visitors; however, in recent months, wildlife managers have reported an increase in human-bat interactions. Individuals who have had physical contact with a bat are advised to seek medical attention and be assessed for appropriate medical treatment.

Rabies is a serious disease that can kill both animals and humans. Humans can contract rabies through contact with an infected animal’s saliva, such as a bite or scratch. Possible rabies infections should be considered in animals that exhibit unusual or aggressive behavior or that are not afraid of humans.

Rabies is preventable if post-exposure prophylaxis – or PEP – medical treatment is given following an exposure to a rabid animal, but is almost always fatal if the treatment is not given prior to the development of symptoms.

Bats suspected of having rabies are not uncommon, as they have tested positive for the infection at the Grand Canyon in previous years.

In Utah, the largest diversity of the state’s bat population dwells in the southern parts of the state, according the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

In this February 2005 file photo, with the North Rim in the background, tourists hike along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz., Feb. 22, 2005 | AP photo by Rick Hossman, St. George News

David Heaton, a spokesman for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, previously told St. George News that people running into bats suspected of having rabies is not uncommon in this region.

“This is the time of year when people are outdoors more,” Heaton said in 2018, adding that 90% of the suspected rabies exposure cases in Washington County come from bats.

In August 2019, the health department reported that there had been several human exposures to rabies-positives bats. These individuals were subsequently treated with a vaccine.

Like park service officials, local health officials have stressed the need to seek medical aid if rabies exposure is suspected, as it can become fatal once symptoms are noticed.

“Rabies vaccine is very effective when given soon enough.” David Blodgett, the public health department’s health officer, said in 2019. “Every year, dozens of people in our district are vaccinated after actual or suspected exposure to rabid animals. Once a person shows symptoms, the disease is nearly always fatal.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. The early symptoms of rabies in people are similar to those of many other illnesses, including fever, headache and general weakness or discomfort. As the disease progresses, more specific symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, increase in saliva, difficulty swallowing and fear of water. Death usually occurs within days of the onset of symptoms.

Grand Canyon National Park would like to remind visitors about the following precautions to protect themselves from rabies:

  • Never approach or touch wildlife; observe and appreciate wildlife from a safe distance. If you see sick or erratic behaving wildlife, notify a park employee or call the park’s 24-hour regional communications center, 928-638-7805.
  • Anyone who has had contact with a bat or other wild animal in the park should notify a park employee as soon as possible. You should consult with your doctor in the event you have contacted an animal believed to be rabid.
  • In areas where pets are allowed, make sure that pets are vaccinated and kept on a leash at all times.
  • While on a river trip take extra precautions and sleep in a tent for protection.

Rabid bats have been documented in 49 states. Every year, cases of rabies in animals are reported in Coconino County, Arizona. Grand Canyon National Park is working with the National Park Service Office of Public Health and Wildlife Health Branch to protect the health and safety of visitors and wildlife in the park by testing any sick or dead wildlife.

The park has additional information available to visitors regarding the bats of Grand Canyon, bat research, and zoonotic diseases.

Southwest Utah residents can also visit the Southwest Utah Public Health Department’s website to learn more about rabies and preventive measures.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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