Merlin’s response to NPR headline on bat rabies

Merlin’s response to NPR headline on bat rabies
By Merlin Tuttle
6/3/2016

Media headlines are often unnecessarily sensational as they compete for readers/viewers. The National Public Radio headline, “Bats in the bedroom can spread rabies without an obvious bite,” is a good example. However, the story itself, as well as its portrayal of a silver-haired bat, were more balanced than most.

Bats can transmit rabies as stated, but not without a bite that is normally painful enough to be recognized at the time. The U.S. Center for Disease Control claims of rabies cases with “no definite bite history” are biased by unreliable reporting methodology. The State of Oregon thoroughly investigated the odds of rabies exposure from bats found in people’s homes relative to needs for vaccination, and their conclusions are enlightening.

It is a virtual certainty that the Wyoming woman featured by NPR was bitten. It is also unlikely that the bat that bit her was one of those living behind the eves of her home. Silver-haired bats rarely live in or enter buildings. The fact that this one did was probably the first evidence of a problem. An unwise decision that leads to a family member’s death is understandably extremely traumatic, and has in other cases I have investigated colored subsequent reporting, erroneously contributing to the belief that bites are extremely difficult to detect.

A silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans) during fall migration in Wisconsin. This species roosts in woodpecker holes and other tree cavities, rarely in buildings.

Though it is common to find bats flying around in people’s homes, in my experience, it is extremely rare to be awakened by a bat actually in contact with a person. In such a case extreme care should be taken to check for even tiny tooth marks, and such an abnormally behaving bat should always be submitted for testing. It is likely that bite marks were missed or not taken seriously because they were small. I am deeply saddened that such well-intended people ended up suffering such serious consequences.

Before we panic about one of America’s rarest sources of mortality, we should keep in mind that the odds of contracting rabies from a bat are extremely remote. On average there are just 1.5 cases per year in all of the U.S. In fact this was the first case in Wyoming since reporting began in 1911. It has been calculated that every time we ride one mile in a motorized vehicle we exceed the odds of dying from rabies in that year. We hear so much about bat rabies in America because it is rare enough to be eye-catching.

We try to teach people to drive safely, and we also should teach them how to live safely with wildlife.

A possible bite from any mammal should be investigated. However, for those who simply avoid handling unfamiliar animals, the odds of contracting rabies are incalculably small.

 

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