Bat Scratch Fever

Everything you always wanted to know about rabies -- but were afraid to touch

Choosing his words carefully, Levy chalks it up to "ignorance."

"Bats are very interesting critters and they're certainly nice to have around from the standpoint of insect control. But they're certainly nothing for humans to play with. I think part of the problem is that people see these nature programs on TV, but the shows rarely mention the downside."

"I guess people see these cute furry little faces and can't resist picking them up," he theorizes. "If these same people had seen a sick skunk staggering out of the woods, nobody would go near it, yet they think nothing of picking up a bat that quite possibly has rabies. It's strange."

Pictures of wild-eyed dogs, foaming at the mouth, 
have become pin-up posters at the state rabies lab in 
Paolo Vescia
Pictures of wild-eyed dogs, foaming at the mouth, have become pin-up posters at the state rabies lab in Phoenix.
Last year, the Phoenix rabies lab examined more than 
1,200 animal heads, including bats, dogs, cows, 
skunks and even a potbellied pig.
Paolo Vescia
Last year, the Phoenix rabies lab examined more than 1,200 animal heads, including bats, dogs, cows, skunks and even a potbellied pig.

If it's hard to fathom why anyone would handle a sick bat, it's even more difficult to imagine the horror of somebody who learns too late that they've been bitten by a rabid bat.

In fact, Levy reports that over the past few years, the majority of humans who've died of rabies in the United States were unaware they'd even been infected until the onset of symptoms.

Such was the case in 1995 when a 4-year-old girl in Washington state inexplicably began suffering from feverish hallucinations -- a classic symptom of human rabies -- before lapsing into a brain-dead coma the day before her death. When baffled doctors asked if she'd been exposed to rabies, her parents reported that a dead bat had been found in her bedroom several months before. But when they found no bite marks on her body, they buried the bat in the yard and promptly forgot about the incident. When the bat was exhumed, health officials found it had been infected with rabies.

And although investigators may never know for certain, they suspect that an undetected bat bite was responsible for the death of the country's latest rabies victim last month. Complaining that his limbs were so numb he was unable to pick up a coffee cup, the 49-year-old northern California man made multiple trips to the emergency room before doctors began to suspect rabies. "Whatever is in my body is taking over, and I feel I am going to die," he told his wife. Heavily sedated with morphine and on a ventilator, he died a week after the symptoms first appeared.

"Bats have small mouths and small teeth," warns Levy. "Even if they do chomp down on you, you may not feel it and they may not leave a physical wound." As a result, he says, the Centers for Disease Control urge anyone who finds a bat in their home to call authorities immediately.

"This time of year, bats are migrating, and you're going to find them in your carports and whatnot," explains Levy. "Leave 'em alone! We don't want you to call us if you've got one roosting in a carport. But a grounded bat? That's a whole different ballgame."

When Cathy Eden and her younger brother were exposed to rabies as children, there was no doubt they'd been bitten. While playing in the yard of their Phoenix home, Eden and her five-year-old brother were attacked by a cat that dug its claws into her brother's back and somehow drew blood during a swipe at her.

That was in 1954, when rabies treatment involved a long series of painful shots, usually administered in the stomach.

Now the director of the state Department of Health Services, Eden says that thanks to childhood naiveté and calm parents, she blissfully had no idea what she was in for. "I was 7," she laughs. "A 7-year-old doesn't know about rabies, and my parents handled it so well, I didn't know there was anything to be worried about."

According to Eden, Phoenix didn't have rabies testing facilities at that time. As a result, the cat's head had to be shipped out of state for results, a process that took two weeks. (Results now come back within a day.) During the interim, says Eden, the local press had a field day as health officials publicly debated the wisdom of waiting so long before treating the children. When the results came back negative, her folks were so relieved that the family decided to spend a few days in northern Arizona to get away from the media hoopla.

Although exact details are vague, someone took another look at the cat's test -- and realized the animal actually was infected. When the mistake was discovered, health officials were dispatched to find Eden's family so the children could begin the dreaded anti-rabies injections. As Eden recalls it, she and her brother had to go to the doctor's office every day for several weeks.

Laughing, Eden dismisses the notion that her brush with rabies has anything to do with her career path. "I will tell you, though, that after all these years, my brother still has a hard time with needles."

That was then, this is now. And although human rabies is every bit as incurable as it was thousands of years ago, considerable progress has been made in preventive treatment. The old anti-rabies regimen -- a horrific process that often involved drawing a circle on a patient's stomach, then dividing that into 28 pie piece-shaped sections that would receive one injection apiece over a four-week interval -- hasn't been used since the early '80s. In its place is a variety of vaccines, most of them requiring only five injections in the arm or derrière, plus a booster shot.

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