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Snohomish Health District offers tips to avoid rabies from bats
Every summer, the Snohomish Health District takes dozens of calls about bats and how to stay healthy around them. Bats are the primary carriers of rabies in the Pacific Northwest, and are found in almost every county in Washington. Rabies causes a rare but often fatal illness in humans, and in wild and domestic animals. Rabies is transmitted through the saliva of the animal, which can be introduced through a bite or scratch.
"Rabies is 100 percent preventable," said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, who leads the county's public health agency. "When it comes to bats, the most effective strategy is to avoid them."
He encouraged people to evaluate their buildings for bat habitat, make entry by bats impossible after bat breeding season is over and vaccinate domestic animals against the rabies virus. As of Jan. 1, 2012, rabies shots are required for dogs, cats and ferrets in Washington.
So far this year, three rabid bats have been identified in Washington, including one in Snohomish County. Last year, 11 rabid bats were identified statewide.
There were no human cases of rabies in the state in 2011, largely due to safe handling of bats, high rates of pet vaccination and rapid administration of immunoglobulin to people exposed to bats. The medicine stimulates antibody production to fight the rabies virus.
Only two people in Washington have died of rabies since 1939, one in 1995 and one in 1997. In Washington state, 5-10 percent of bats tested are found positive for rabies. Nationwide, between one and six people die from rabies annually.
"Depending on the species, bats migrate here or come out of hibernation when the weather warms up in late spring," Goldbaum said. They go back into hibernation or flap away to warmer climates in October as the weather cools off. Goldbaum explained that bats are excellent insect-eaters and should not be killed needlessly.
To protect yourself and your pets:
• Never touch bats with bare hands. Be suspicious of bat activity during daylight hours, because it could indicate illness in the bat.
• If you find a bat in your room when you wake up, call the Snohomish Health District at 425-339-5278 to discuss the likelihood of your exposure to a bat bite or scratch. What may seem insignificant to you might turn out to be serious enough for testing and treatment. Bats will be accepted for testing only if a human exposure is involved.
• If you know for certain you have been bitten or scratched by a bat, seek medical attention immediately. Wear gloves, capture or transfer the bat into a container, and call the health district for instructions. The state public health laboratory tests bats that may have exposed a human to rabies.
• Bat-proof your home or cabin by checking chimneys, roof peaks, loose screening or areas where flashing has pulled away from the roof or siding. Bats can enter a building through holes the diameter of a quarter. Bat-proofing is best in early spring or the fall, so that baby bats are not trapped inside. More information is available online at www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/mammals/housebat/batproof.htm.
• Always vaccinate your pets, including dogs, cats, ferrets, horses and rodents. If your pet finds a dead bat, collect the bat in a plastic bag as you would pick up dog droppings, with no bare hand contact. Call public health for current recommendations, and call your veterinarian to be sure your pet's rabies vaccination is current. Animals exposed to possibly rabid bats must be confined for 45 days if vaccinated, and up to six months if not vaccinated. For more information, log onto www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/IllnessandDisease/Rabies/PetVaccinationRequirement.aspx.
For more information about rabies, log onto www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/rabies or www.snohd.org/Shd_CD/CDcontrol.aspx.