Let’s talk about rabies

Hydrophobia. Fear of water. Thousands of years after the first cases of rabies were recognized as a disease and characterized by this one fatal symptom in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, we are still fighting to eradicate it. Just last December, the World Heath Organization (WHO) authored an initiative with its animal counterpart to end human rabies cases by 2030.

Yes, that’s right. Rabies is still around, even in the United States. In Texas alone last year, 949 animals tested positive for rabies, many of them pets. Around the world, 55,000 people die of rabies each year, almost half of them children. That is over 55,000 lives cut short because of a disease easily preventable by vaccination. Unfortunately, the amount of infrastructure and the availability of medical care, including those crucial vaccinations, is markedly different between developing countries and developed countries like the United States.

There is one other key difference: the type of rabies that dogs commonly carry has actually been eradicated here, though dogs remain the main reservoir in other countries, including China, India, Africa, and most of South America. Instead, dependent on where you live in the US, you may find cases carried in bats, foxes, skunks, raccoons, and coyotes. And if you or your dog gets bitten by one of these critters, both of you could become infected and potentially even transmit the fatal disease to others.

A few weeks ago, I visited central Texas for a family shindig, and we had the opportunity to visit one of the caves in the area. During our tour, we were able to see these little guys:

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Once known as the eastern pipistrelle, they are now more commonly known as the tri-colored bat. They are often solitary or in small groups at the edges of caves and agricultural areas of the eastern US, though much remains unknown about their daily habits.

During our tour of the caves, our guide informed the group that these bats are too small to bite and do not carry rabies. The key here is that these bats are the size of small mice. Would you believe someone if they told you that mice don’t bite? Of course not! Like mice, bats don’t often bite, but even the smallest of them will if threatened.

As to their ability to carry and transmit rabies, many ‘cryptic’ cases of human and pet rabies, where the original infected bite wasn’t identified, are not only attributable to bats, but to this species specifically. As a matter of fact, the tri-colored bat is one of the most common causes of human cases of cryptic rabies, and is a known vector, or carrier, of rabies in Texas specifically. In addition, Travis County in central Texas is one of the hot spots for positive rabies cases due to the density of bats living there. Though the risks of receiving an infected bat bite or scratch on a short cave tour are low, they do exist.

When I brought up my concerns after the tour, they were dismissed off-hand. There were kids in that tour and in other tours that will receive this information, and that is unacceptable. Even in the US, children are more likely than adults to receive exposures to rabid bats through touching them, picking them up, handling them bare-handed. And all it takes is one parent to believe this inaccurate information, to not get the treatment necessary after their child has been exposed, to have a child die because someone thought the bat was too small to bite them, and besides, they don’t carry rabies anyway. Right?

Wrong. Let’s talk about rabies. Let’s talk about the real risks, not downplay them so people aren’t cautious when they encounter wildlife or strange animals, or so they pay the ticket price for entrance into your attraction.

If you do encounter a strange animal, whether it’s wild or domestic, please don’t approach it. If it bites or scratches you, make sure to clean out any injuries, no matter how small, and get treatment from your doctor. Even when rabies isn’t a primary concern, other infections may be depending on the nature of the injury.

Yes, being outside with the diverse array of wildlife we have around us is wonderful, even beautiful at times. Please don’t forget, though, that nature’s beauty often comes with thorns.

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