One of my co-workers recently had a bat encounter in her car. This led to a hospital visit, immunoglobulin injections, rabies vaccinations and a lot of discussion on Facebook. What I learned is that there is a lot of misunderstanding and general lack of knowledge about this important disease.
My co-worker was driving to work when the bat flew into her face. Initially, she thought it was a moth and brushed it away. It then flew into her neck and head. At that point, realizing it was a bat, she put her hoodie up and maneuvered her car safely off the road. The bat landed on her two more times and ultimately flew out of the car when she opened the door.
She suffered a single pinpoint puncture on her cheek. It is still unknown whether it was a bite or scratch. But it was the source of serious concern.
Rabies is a virus. Once it enters the body (typically through a bite), it is picked up by peripheral nerves and transported to the brain. Until it actually reaches your brain, you can be treated with immunoglobulins, which will kill the virus. But once it does reach the brain, you will quickly develop clinical rabies.
There is no treatment for clinical rabies. Once it is established in your brain, you will die.
The virus moves toward the brain at a rate of 1/2 to 4 inches per day. If you were bitten in the foot and you were a tall man, it might take months.
But in my co-worker’s case, the potential bite was less than 2 inches from her eye. The eye is full of lots of neurons and one very large nerve — the optic nerve — which attaches directly to the brain. If the bat had been rabid, she would have developed rabies within hours if she hadn’t sought treatment.
In Washington state, bats are the only reservoir of rabies. We do not have endemic rabies in skunks, opossum, foxes or other mammals. Any encounter with a bat should be taken seriously, especially if there is a break in the skin or the human is sleeping and finds that a bat is in the home.
Human rabies is rare in the United States because people who are exposed to the virus can go to the emergency room and get the immunoglobulin injection. But if a person doesn’t realize they were exposed — or underestimates the potential exposure — the virus is deadly.
Sonnya Crawford, DVM, is a veterinarian at Grays Harbor Veterinary Services in Montesano. Her pets include two cats, numerous parrots, a giant bunny and saltwater fish. Her special interests are in avian medicine, veterinary dermatology and dentistry. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.