Three North Idaho residents are undergoing rabies shots because of exposure to bats in the last two weeks.
And because of three rabies deaths in the region in less than a year, public health officials no longer believe people have to be wounded by a bat in order to contract rabies.
“The message used to be, if you aren’t bit or scratched, you are OK,” said physician Christine Hahn, Idaho state epidemiologist. “There’s a feeling now if you come in contact with bats or you wake up in a room with a bat, the health department recommends rabies shots.”
There always have been cases of people contracting rabies although they cannot remember being bitten or scratched. Doctors now presume that those cases involve contact with bats, Hahn said.
That matches the North Idaho incidents, two of which surfaced in Bonner County in the last two weeks. In one case, a man and a woman were startled by a bat that landed on one of the individual’s shoulders, said Ken Babin of Panhandle Health District.
The other person knocked the bat off of the partner’s shoulder. The bat tested positive for rabies and the couple are receiving shots.
In the other Bonner County case, a family’s four cats found a dead bat on the porch and brought it into the house. Again the bat tested positive for rabies.
Three of the four cats were not vaccinated for rabies and had to be killed. The family likely won’t have to be vaccinated because subsequent test results showed the cats were not infected.
A North Idaho boy also reportedly encountered a bat while riding his bicycle, Hahn said. Because the bat brushed his face, she recommended to the mother that he get the six shots over 28 days that prevent rabies.
“That’s very unusual - bats are supposed to have good radar,” she said.
Rabies initially appears as something resembling the flu and always is fatal. It is a virus that infects the nervous system and causes the brain to swell. The good news is people no longer have to receive the shots in the stomach, according to the New York Times.
A Washington man and a Montana man died in January after seemingly innocuous encounters with bats. The 66-year-old Montana man, for example, discovered the bat in his bedroom and shooed it out of his house with a broom.
His death was misdiagnosed. Only upon autopsy did doctors discover the cause was rabies.
Idaho hasn’t reported a case of rabies in humans since 1978, when a woman contracted it and died as a result of a cornea transplant, Hahn said. The man whose eyes were used in the transplant had wrongly been diagnosed as dying from a different neurological disorder.
Bats have been responsible for 19 of the 34 cases of rabies reported nationwide since 1980, according to the New York Times. There also appears to be a slight increase in the number of rabies cases.
Since bats normally are nocturnal and avoid people, any contact should be considered a case for worry, Hahn said. If you get that close to a bat, it’s probably sick.
“I don’t want people randomly trying to get rid of all bats,” she said. “But if you are in contact with a bat, that’s worrisome.”
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