The rabies virus in humans is something we don’t see often in the United States. In third world countries the rabies virus is still very active and kills regularly. It is much more widespread because the rabies vaccine for dogs is not used often in other countries. It is estimated by the World Veterinary Association that 90% of rabies contracted in other countries is through dog bites.
Sadly, the state of Wyoming has now seen its first ever fatality of a human from the rabies virus. This contraction of the rabies virus was from a bat bite.
Death by rabies has been in the news a lot lately. September 28th was rabies awareness day and there were more rabid animals found in many states than is normal. The uptick in rabies this year has made all of us at Get Bats Out extra cautious.
We often hear the fear in our customers voices when they ask about the bats in their home or building having rabies. So here are three things we think you should know about rabies to prevent contracting this deadly virus.
1. What is Rabies?
Encephalitis is acute swelling of the brain resulting either from a viral infection or when the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks brain tissue. Acute in medicine means it has an abrupt onset, develops rapidly, and usually requires urgent care.
This swelling of the brain causes many complications and eventually death. In the United States there have only been three reported cases of someone surviving the rabies virus without the vaccination.
The rabies virus is transmitted from animals to humans, most commonly by animal bites. There have been reports of people contracting it from breathing the air while in a bat cave but there is nothing supporting this. It is much more likely that they were scratched or bitten while in the cave and didn’t know it.
The majority of recent human rabies cases in the US have been identified as being due to a bat strain of rabies virus, often with the victim not remembering or disclosing an animal bite of any kind. This has resulted in a more liberal interpretation of rabies exposure by bats specifically: “…in situations in which a bat is physically present and the person(s) cannot reasonably exclude the possibility of a bite exposure, post exposure prophylaxis should be given unless prompt capture and testing of the bat has excluded rabies virus infection.” (MMWR 1996; 45:209)
2. What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Rabies?
The first symptoms to appear are flu-like ones, including fever, headache and fatigue. There will be tingling and/or pain at the bite site, as well as a loss of appetite.
The period between initial infection and the onset of first symptoms can take from four to eight weeks, and sometimes over a year. The further the bite is from the head, the longer the incubation period tends to be.
Two possible types of rabies can develop; furious rabies or dumb rabies.
Symptoms of furious rabies:
- progressive anxiety and agitation
- stiff neck
- overproduction of tears and saliva (end stage)
- dilated pupils
- photophobia (abnormal sensitivity to light)
- thermophobia (abnormal sensitivity to temperatures)
- hydrophobia (abnormal fear of water)
- partial paralysis
- alternating periods of mental clarity with severe anxiety, followed by confusion, delusions and hallucinations.
Virtually all patients die within two to ten days after the first symptoms appear. Most of the extreme few who are known to have survived have had severe brain damage. The road to recovery once survived is long and painful either way.
Symptoms of dumb rabies:
- excessive salivation (overproduction of spit)
- partial paralysis which spreads and gets worse
This rarer type of rabies affects the spinal cord. The patient becomes progressively paralyzed, until the lungs and heart do not work anymore. About a week after severe symptoms develop patients go into coma, and then die.
3. Rabies Death Rate
Until 1885, when Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux developed a vaccine, all human cases of rabies were fatal.
There has been extensive testing done on the efficacy of receiving the PEP treatment, and not receiving it, after rabies exposure on both humans and animals. The PEP treatment combines three principles; immediate wound cleansing, receiving the vaccine, and receiving rabies immune globulin. PEP treatment is uniformly effective when appropriately used. Rabies has not occurred in persons who have received prompt PEP treatment.
The PEP treatment needs to be administered as soon as possible after exposure. Please consult with your physician as soon as possible to decide if treatment is necessary and when to start it.
So rabies, while scary, is today considered a treatable and preventable virus. Once contracted and symptoms have set in, it is still considered 100% fatal.
While we believe bats get a bad name for carrying rabies (there are far more foxes, skunks, and racoons that carry it), it is the animal that most often transmits the virus to humans.
If you live in Wyoming and have been putting off your bat removal project, there is no better time than the present!