Summer time brings sunny weather, longer days and more time spent outside.
It also brings with it an increased risk of contact between people and wild animals, particularly bats, and consequently an increased risk of exposure to rabies – a disease which, if not prevented quickly after exposure to the virus, is fatal over 99 per cent of the time.
Bats are the primary carriers of rabies in the province. The Vancouver Island Health Authority warns people to avoid physical contact with bats, and to seek immediate medical attention if they have been bitten by, or have had any physical contact with a bat. While rabies can be prevented with a vaccine after exposure to the virus, immunization is ineffective once symptoms develop.
Rabies disease is very rare among humans. There have been only two human cases of rabies in BC residents since 1985– both linked to a bat strain of the virus – and both of them were fatal. Even if the disease is rare, exposures to bats are frequent. Each situation must be evaluated to determine the need for vaccine.
Dr. Dee Hoyano, Medical Health Officer for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, urges people – especially those with children – to be careful and vigilant.
“The best way to avoid rabies exposure is to avoid direct contact with bats. Bats are not pets; they are wild animals that can be dangerous at times. Children and adults need to know that bats should never be directly touched or picked up, whatever the condition of the bat – dead or alive.” In special circumstances, trained personnel can assist with handling or moving bats.
Sometimes contact with a bat is unavoidable or accidental. In that case, “If you are bitten, scratched or have handled a bat, assume you’ve been exposed to the rabies virus,” Dr. Hoyano says. “In those circumstances, you must seek medical attention to have your exposure risk evaluated.”
“Although there is virtually no risk of rabies from being bitten by other types of animals – such as otters, raccoons and squirrels – on Vancouver Island, people should seek medical advice right away, especially if the animal acted strangely. Also, a tetanus shot may be needed.” warns Dr. Hoyano.
The best approach is prevention:
- Do not touch live or dead bats
- Make your home or cabin ‘bat-proof’. Keep your doors and windows closed or screened (make sure the screens don’t have any holes), and keep your attic area free of bats by ensuring all vents are properly screened
- Seek professional bat control advice if you observe bats in your work area or home environment
- Avoid locations or activities where bats are likely to be encountered (e.g. caves)
- If you have a pet dog, cat or ferret, make sure it is vaccinated regularly against rabies
- Warn children about the risks of exposure to rabies (e.g. not approaching wildlife or handling bats)
People who have been bitten or scratched by a bat, or who have handled a bat should immediately do the following:
- Thoroughly wash the bite or scratch with soap and water, using lots of water to flush the wound
- In the case of handling a bat, wash hands thoroughly
- Seek medical attention right away
For more information on rabies:
- Visit the Rabies information page on www.bccdc.ca.
- Call HealthLink BC by dialing 811
- View the BC HealthFiles on Rabies at www.healthlinkbc.ca