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Healthy Outlook

Don't Carry Rabies Risk into the Classroom

By Monica Murphy, DVM, MPH

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A couple of years ago, an elementary school student in Sarasota, Fla. found a live bat on campus and decided to bring it back to class to show his friends. In the classroom, he passed it around to several other students to examine, according to news reports.

The bat later tested positive for rabies and the boy as along with some of his classmates had to receive post-exposure treatment to prevent the deadly disease from taking hold. (Contrary to the popular myth, you don't get rabies vaccine injected into the stomach anymore; treatment consists of a series of shots in the arm now.)

Every now and then I hear a story about a child – or even a parent – who brings a bat to school for show and tell. These situations distress me because there is always a risk that a bat could be infected. Bats should never, ever be brought to school.

What makes bats so dangerous? Of all the wildlife tested for rabies every year, bats test positive the most. According to the California Department of Public health, almost 95 percent (211 of the 223) of animals that tested positive for rabies in California in 2011 were bats. And, although many of us are not aware of it, bats live closely among Contra Costa county residents in both urban and rural settings.

The bat accomplishes its potentially deadly bite with extremely tiny teeth. Bat bites are subtle compared to bites from other animals known to carry rabies such as skunks and raccoons. In a sleeping person, or one who is very young, disabled, or intoxicated, a bat bite might be difficult to recognize. Moreover, to an uninformed victim, a bat bite might seem like a minor event, unlikely to have dire health consequences. This is quite possibly what happened in the death of a Contra Costa man a few months ago. In that case, the victim developed symptoms and died while working abroad. He never once told his doctors that he'd been bitten by an animal. It was only after his death that an investigation indicated he had contracted rabies from a bat that had likely bit him months earlier when he was still in Contra Costa.

Even though rabies is rare in the United States, we must remain vigilant. The best way to do this is by making sure our pets vaccinated and by not handling wildlife, especially bats. If you find a bat in your home or yard, don't touch it. Call animal control and let them deal with it.

Rabies is not something to toy with. Untreated, it is almost always fatal. After someone is exposed to rabies, usually through an animal bite, symptoms can take from weeks to several months to appear. Symptoms include fever, fatigue and pain or prickling sensation at the site of the bite. By then, however, it's too late to save someone. That's why it is absolutely critical to seek medical attention immediately after any possible exposure to rabies—whether you're actually bitten by an animal or merely wake up from a deep sleep in the presence of a bat.

In defense of bats, let me say that most of them are not infected with rabies and they eat insects and are good for the environment. But that doesn't mean you should touch one and you definitely shouldn't bring one to school for show and tell.

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at theairdoctor@gmail.com. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.
About the Author
Monica Murphy is a veterinarian who works for Contra Costa Public Health’s Communicable Disease Program.