NOV 02, 2017 3:08 PM PDT

How a Bite From a Bat Turned Deadly

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Image credit: Pixabay.com

PSA: Rabies is not a minor illness that will go away on its own. One person in Florida recently contracted rabies from a bat bite and died because they did not seek immediate medical care. The Florida State Department confirmed the incident and is warning people to take rabies seriously.

The rabies victim was a resident of Highlands County in Central Florida. However, information surrounding the fatal incident has not been released. Officials want to make it clear that what killed the person wasn’t the bite of a bat. Rather, the bite transmitted the rabies virus to the person. Furthermore, the State Department added that the person didn’t get medical help after the bite, a move which likely made the rabies fatal.

Rabies is a virus that readily infects mammals, including humans. The virus’ main targets? The central nervous system and the brain. In the brain, the virus causes encephalitis, or brain inflammation. This triggers some of the telltale signs that we typically associate with rabies: delirium, uncontrolled excitement, violent movements, and general confusion. In some cases, the infected person can develop a fear of water (hydrophobia), marked by an inability to swallow or panicking at the sight of liquids. In fact, hydrophobia is the historic name for rabies.

“Rabies virus can cause a nearly 100% fatal illness in humans and other mammals,” per the Florida Department of Health.

Indeed, during the later stages, the inflammation in the brain will trigger seizures, loss of consciousness, and eventually death. When rabies symptoms show, it’s likely past the point of cure. Reportedly, only six people have ever survived rabies after showing symptoms.

But the grim outcome of a rabies infection needn’t be so, say health officials. Prompt treatment after exposure to the rabies virus will, in most cases, prevent the disease. This includes thoroughly washing the wound with soap and water for about 5 minutes to reduce the number of viral particles. It’s also critical to get the first dose of the rabies vaccine as soon as possible, as this vaccine dose has the best chance of stopping the virus in its tracks. Three additional doses of the rabies vaccine are given over a 2-week period, and ensures the complete annihilation of the rabies virus from the body system. Because the virus’ incubation period varies from days to months, it’s critical to get the vaccine treatment as soon as possible.

In 2015, rabies caused over 17,000 deaths worldwide, with dogs are the common carriers of the rabies virus. In North America, however, because of stringent pet vaccination programs, bats are the common carriers of the virus.

Specific to Florida, the State Department warned that multiple animal sources can transmit the virus. “The main wildlife sources of rabies in Florida are raccoons and bats. Infected raccoons and bats can expose people, pets, livestock and other wildlife to rabies, typically through bites.” They also warn that these sources “can spread [the virus] to unvaccinated pets, which then pose a high risk to the pet owner and their family.”

In most cases, avoiding exposure to the virus altogether is the best option. This means avoiding direct contact to wildlife, and staying clear of locations inhabited by common rabies carriers.

“For bats, one of the most important parts of their habitat is a place to roost,’’ says Florida’s Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. “In Florida, natural roosting sites can be caves, in cracks, crevices or hollows of trees, under dead fronds of palm trees, and in Spanish moss. Bats also use man-made structures including buildings, bridges, culverts, tile roofs and bat houses.”

Short of zero exposure, the next best thing to do is seek medical help. "If you believe you may have been exposed to rabies, including any physical contact with a bat, contact your health care provider and your county health department right away,” per the State Department.

Additional sources: Live Science, Miami Herald

About the Author
I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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