Health officials warn about rabid bats in Whatcom County

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 21, 2013 

brown bat

A big brown bat flies with a beetle in its mouth in this undated photo. The most common species of bat in the United States, the brown can be rabid but has rarely been linked with human cases of rabies.

MERLIN D. TUTTLE — AP

Public health officials are telling people to avoid bats after one tested positive for rabies in Whatcom County this week.

It was the second rabid bat detected in the county this year, the county Health Department said.

That's a concern because bats are the main carriers of the rabies virus in Washington state, with as many as 10 percent tested found to be rabid, according to state health officials.

Those numbers reflect bats brought in, which tend to be sick and injured, state health officials said, noting that fewer than 1 percent of all bats in the wild are infected with rabies.

Rabies in humans is rare in the U.S., and the last case in Washington state was in 1997.

The virus attacks the nervous system. The disease is nearly fatal once symptoms appear.

Infection can occur when a rabid animal bites people or other animals. Or when they come into contact with an infected animal's salvia.

People who have been bitten or scratched by a bat should wash their wound well, call their doctor and the Health Department at 360-676-6724, and isolate the bat, if possible, while using protective gear.

That way the bat can be tested for rabies.

And though they're cautioning the public, health officials said people who steer clear of bats don't have to worry about being attacked by them.

"It's nothing to get overly anxious about," said Josh Leinbach of the county health department. "Bats are beneficial. Really, the only concerns with humans is if they come in direct contact or find one in like their sleeping quarters."

People exposed to a rabid animal must get a rabies vaccine and immune globulin to prevent the disease.

Bats are important, in part, because they control pests by eating twice their weight in insects every day.

Tips for avoiding bats include:

• Teach children to stay away from them.

• Keep pets away from bats. Make sure your pet's rabies vaccination is current.

• Put screens on windows and doors to keep bats out of your home.

Additional details are online at the Washington state Department of Health's website at doh.wa.gov. Type "rabies" into the search window.

Or call the county health department and ask for the Communicable Disease & Epidemiology Division.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

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