U.S. Department of Agriculture
OLYMPIA — State health officials are warning people to protect themselves after finding a rash of rabid bats in homes and parks across Washington.
A dozen of the fuzzy, flying mammals tested positive for rabies in August. That’s more than any month this decade, according to data from the state Department of Health.
Of the 200 to 300 bats checked in Washington labs every year, about 3 to 10 percent are found to be rabid. So far in 2017, 21 have been killed to help slow the spread of the viral disease.
The nocturnal critters carry rabies and spread it to people and pets, mostly through saliva. Infections often come from bites or scratches.
In 2016, the state euthanized 20 rabid bats. That’s up from nine in 2015.
Of 1,250 bats tested by public-health workers from 2015 to 2011, 20 came from Pacific County. Three were among 56 that were killed after lab results they showed they had rabies.
Officials don’t have a clear explanation for this summer’s spike in the number of sick bats. It might be because more people are reporting their run-ins with bats so the state can test them in the lab.
Human rabies is almost always deadly. At first there might not be any symptoms. But weeks, or even months after a bite or scratch, rabies can cause pain, fatigue, headaches, fever, and irritability. By then, it’s too late for treatment so seizures, hallucinations, and paralysis usually follow.
A course of five injections can be given over two weeks to treat rabies if the medicine is started soon after exposure. There’s also a vaccine people can take if they’re traveling to areas with higher risk for human rabies.
Rare but deadly risk
Bats are the biggest carrier of the disease in the U.S., although human cases are rare. Doctors have diagnosed 55 people with rabies nationwide since 1990, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The disease is more widespread abroad, killing 40,000 to 70,000 people every year, according the CDC. Bites from unvaccinated dogs cause rabies in most of cases outside the U.S.
Cats, skunks, raccoons, and other wild animals can carry the virus too.
The CDC recommends washing wounds immediately after being bitten or scratched. It suggests seeking medical treatment for any possible exposure.
Between 16,000 and 39,000 people get vaccinated every year as a precaution after being around animals, the CDC reports.
Health officials want people and their pets to stay away from bats, dead or alive, and report encounters to local authorities.
The Washington State Department of Health has more information and details about precautions on its website.
Although rabies is a concern, in general bats are regarded as a valuable part of the animal kingdom in the Pacific Northwest.
“Bats are highly beneficial to people, and the advantages of having them around far outweigh any problems you might have with them. As predators of night-flying insects (including mosquitoes!), bats play a role in preserving the natural balance of your property or neighborhood,” the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said.
For more information about Washington bats, see wdfw.wa.gov/living/bats.html.