CDC reports increase in human rabies cases linked to bats in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is raising awareness of the risks of rabies from bats in the U.S. after three people, including one child, died from rabies between late September and early November 2021. The three cases, described in the January 6, 2022, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, bring the total number…

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CDC reports increase in human rabies cases linked to bats in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is raising awareness of the risks of rabies from bats in the U.S. after three people, including one child, died from rabies between late September and early November 2021. The three cases, described in the January 6, 2022, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, bring the total number of cases in 2021 to five, compared to no reported rabies cases in people during 2019 and 2020.

Over a five-week period between September 28, and November 3, 2021, three people— one each in Idaho, Illinois, and Texas— were confirmed to have rabies after direct contact with bats in or around their homes and died. Two of the bat-associated cases were considered avoidable exposures: one was attributed to a bat roost in the patient’s home, the other to the patient picking up the bat with bare hands. Two patients released the bat, rather than capturing it for testing. None of the three individuals received post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), shots that can prevent rabies from developing if received before symptoms start.

“We have come a long way in the United States towards reducing the number of people who become infected each year with rabies, but this recent spate of cases is a sobering reminder that contact with bats poses a real health risk,” said Ryan Wallace, DVM, MPH, a veterinarian and rabies expert in CDC’s Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology.

Exposure to rabid bats is the leading cause of rabies in humans in the U.S., accounting for 70% of people who become infected. The number of rabid bats reported to the National Rabies Surveillance System has been stable since 2007, which suggests that this uptick in cases of rabies in people may be due to a lack of awareness about of the risks of rabies – and that getting PEP is a life-or-death matter.

Bat bites do not always cause a visible mark yet can still spread rabies virus through infected saliva – so any direct contact with a bat should be assessed by a clinical or public health provider. It typically takes anywhere between three weeks to three months, though sometimes more or less time, for people to develop symptoms if infected. PEP is effective in preventing rabies until symptoms develop. Once symptoms begin, rabies is nearly always fatal.

CDC is urging people to take the following measures to prevent or lessen the risk of infection with rabies:

  1. Avoid direct contact with bats.
  2. If you do come into contact with a bat OR if someone possibly had contact with a bat, do the following:
    1. Call your state or local health department or animal control to help trap the bat for testing or safely trap the bat yourself. Testing a bat to determine if it is rabid can help to determine whether you need PEP.
    2. Contact your doctor or a local public health official to assess whether PEP is needed.

These steps are important even if contact with a bat takes place through clothing and bite or scratch marks are not visible. Sometimes it is not clear whether someone may have had contact with a bat, such as when a bat is found in a room with someone who is sleeping or where a child has been left unattended.

If potentially exposed to a rabid animal, receiving PEP soon after exposure and before symptoms begin is critical. While rabies deaths in people in the United States are not common, CDC estimates that approximately 60,000 people receive PEP each year to prevent becoming ill with rabies. PEP is nearly 100% effective at preventing rabies if received before symptoms start.

For more information about rabies, visit Rabies | CDC.

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CDC works 24/7 protecting America’s health, safety and security. Whether disease start at home or abroad, are curable or preventable, chronic or acute, or from human activity or deliberate attack, CDC responds to America’s most pressing health threats. CDC is headquartered in Atlanta and has experts located throughout the United States and the world.

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One thought on “CDC reports increase in human rabies cases linked to bats in the U.S.

  1. Aditya avatar

    Rabies is pretty damn scary–but please learn what animals carry rabies where you live.

    I've seen people freak out because they've seen a raccoon in the daytime and think (1) raccoons are nocturnal so this one is acting strange, and (2) raccoons are rabies carriers, and so it is probably acting strange because it is rabid.

    In fact in this part of the country (western Washington) from 1988-2020 rabies has not been found in any wild terrestrial mammal. The only mammals found to have rabies over that time have been 530 bats, 2 cats, 1 horse, and 1 llama.

    There's a nifty map here [1] showing what animal populations have rabies in which states.

    So what does it mean when you see a raccoon in the daytime in western Washington? It almost always means they aren't finding enough food at night so have to put in overtime foraging.

    This is quite common around breeding time. The pregnant females need more food than normal and often will have to go out during the day to get it.

    BTW, I believe it is not known why rabies is not found in wild terrestrial mammals here.

    For squirrels there are at least three theories. (1) Squirrels are safely asleep in their nests when bats are out, so don't get bitten by bats and if they get bitten by something else that something else is probably big enough that the encounter is fatal for the squirrel, (2) maybe squirrels have strong natural immunity so don't get it even if they do get bitten, or (3) maybe squirrels are particularly vulnerable to it so if they get bitten by a bat they quickly die before they can spread it and since we don't do autopsies on random dead squirrels we come across we never find out about the briefly rabid squirrels.

    For raccoons, I don't think it is clear why they aren't picking it up from bats here.

    [1] https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/location/usa/surveillance/wild_an…