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Rabies

 

Definition

Rabies is a zoonotic (from animals) disease caused by a virus. It is transmitted through saliva (spit), usually by an animal (mammals only) bite. This disease affects the nervous system. If not treated in time, rabies kills almost all of its victims.  

Symptoms

Symptoms generally take three to eight weeks (or possibly much longer) to appear and include:

  • headache,
  • fever,
  • increasing difficulty in swallowing,
  • excessive drooling,
  • muscle spasm or weakness, and
  • strange behavior.

If vaccinations to prevent the disease are not administered before the onset of symptoms, death is almost certain.

Symptoms in animals include paralysis, especially of the hind limbs and throat muscles. Some mammals may become aggressive, and may attack humans without reason. Rabid bats may appear normal except for a gradual weakness, flying in the daytime and loss of flying ability.

 

Causes

Most humans get infected after being bitten or scratched by an infected animal (mammals only). Dog bites cause most human rabies in developing countries. If you are traveling abroad and are attacked by any dog, see a doctor. Wild animals, domestic pets and farm animals have all been known to carry the disease.

In British Columbia, the only species that currently carries rabies is bats. In fact, four to eight per cent of bats from B.C. submitted for testing following human contact have been infected with rabies. This does not mean that 8 percent of all bats in B.C. are infected - most bats submitted for testing are tested because they are dead, sick, or acting strangely (and are therefore more likely to have rabies). The percentage of all bats in B.C. that are infected is probably much lower (it is estimated that the incidence of rabies in wild bats is about 0.5 per cent). However, bats with rabies have been found throughout B.C. You should suspect any bat of being a potential source of rabies.
 
In other parts of Canada, rabies is found in wild animals such as bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes. 

In some developing countries, dogs and other animals often carry rabies. Dogs are responsible for causing most of the 55,000 cases of rabies per year worldwide. Most cases occur in Africa and Asia.  

You should suspect any bat of being a potential source of rabies. Although B.C. has had 2 cases of human rabies since 1985, over 200 people a year are treated for suspected exposure to the virus. All bat-associated bites, scratches and physical contacts are considered as potential sources for rabies exposure. 

Bats play an essential role in British Columbia’s ecosystem. For example, all species of bats found in BC eat insects, which helps control the population size of pest insects. Bats should be left undisturbed unless there is a suspicion of rabies exposure or other harm.

In British Columbia, rabies acquired through bites from other animals is unknown, but keep in mind that strange behavior in pets and other animals may mean they have rabies. Avoid contact with any wild or unfamiliar animal.
 

 

Tests and Diagnosis

 
  • If you are bitten by an animal, the head of that animal may be needed for testing. If rabies is suspected, a postmortem examination of the animal's brain can quickly show whether or not it was rabid.
  • If the suspected animal is a pet cat, dog or ferret, medical authorities will typically keep the animal alive, but under observation, for symptoms. The only way it could transmit rabies is if the animal shows symptoms of rabies, or dies, within 10 days of biting someone.
 

Treatment and Drugs

If you are bitten or scratched by an animal that you think may have rabies, you should:

  • Immediately wash the wound well with soap and warm water under moderate pressure (e.g. a running tap) for at least 15 minutes, then flush thoroughly with water. This lessens the chance of any infection. 
  • Seek medical attention from your doctor or local public health unit right away.  If shots are received in time, rabies in humans can be prevented.

Two products are used to prevent rabies:

  • One dose of rabies immune globulin that helps to neutralize the virus before it becomes established, and then
  • Four doses of rabies vaccine given over the next 14 days that help your immune system make antibodies against the virus.
 

Prevention

 

While the rabies virus can infect any mammal, bats are the only animal species in British Columbia in which rabies is endemic. Recent re-analysis shows that the risk of rabies in the absence of recognized physical contact with bats is exceedingly small. Immunization against rabies should only be offered if direct physical contact with a bat or any other animal with suspect or confirmed rabies has occurred.  

If there is evidence that someone has come into direct physical contact with a bat, and it is still alive and can be captured, contact a wildlife professional or pest control company to have someone capture it. Or, your local public health unit may be able to suggest someone to help.

If no one is available to capture the bat, and the previously scratched or bitten person (exposed) is willing, they can attempt to capture the bat themselves. Do not allow anyone who has not had rabies exposure to attempt to capture the bat, as this will increase their chance of contact with the potentially rabid animal. Remember that bats are protected under the Wildlife Act of BC and it is illegal to purposefully kill bats. 

  • If the bat is inside, close all doors and windows in the area.
  • Put on a hat, leather gloves, a long-sleeved jacket, and pants.
  • Use a blanket, net, broom or towel to catch the bat (without touching it and while protecting any exposed area such as the face).
  • Use gloves to put it in a sealable container. 
  • Place the container in a cool, safe place away from human or pet contact or put it into the fridge, which will make the bat go into hibernation. Do not kill the bat.
  • Call your local public health unit. The bat will be tested for rabies. If it does not have rabies, no prevention will be necessary.
  • Dispose of the gloves used to transfer the bat

When there has been no direct contact, bats should not be captured or tested. An attempt to capture a bat may increase the risk of direct contact. Since no immunization is recommended if there is no contact, there is no point in testing such bats.

It is crucial to receive shots for possible rabies as soon as possible. Rabies typically takes from 3-8 weeks before symptoms start. If you wait until the symptoms start to appear, it is usually too late to begin effective medical treatment.

If there is any chance that you may have been exposed to the rabies virus, contact your doctor or your local public health office. They will be able to decide if you need shots to prevent rabies. Although human rabies is a rare disease, animal rabies occurs in B.C. - and in other provinces and countries - and it can be fatal when passed on to humans.

The following suggestions will help protect you from rabies:

  • Vaccinate your cat, dog, or ferret against rabies and keep its rabies immunization up to date. Otherwise, your pet could be infected by a rabid animal, and your pet could in turn infect you.
  • If you do find a bat, dead or alive, don't touch it! The rabies virus can be transmitted by the animal's saliva (spit) through a cut on your hand or an open sore, even if you're not actually bitten.
  • If you find a dead bat out in the woods or away from populated areas, just leave it where it is.
  • If you find a dead bat in your yard, or near your home where your children or pets may find it -- and you are sure there has been no human contact -- you should pick it up with a shovel and bury it. Again, don't touch it! Wear disposable gloves, and afterwards wash your hands well with soap and warm water.
  • If you can't bury the bat, pick it up with a stick, (wear disposable gloves) and put it in a plastic bag. Put this bag in a second plastic bag and seal it tight. Then put it in the garbage (unless prohibited by local by-law). After you have disposed of the stick, or disposable gloves, wash your hands well with soap and warm water for at least five minutes.
  • If you know of bats living in a building and would like to learn more about how to safely evict them, see www.bcbats.ca. or contact the Ministry of Environment office. 
  • If your cat or dog brings a dead bat home, check with your vet about rabies shots for your pet and whether your pet should be quarantined for observation. If you find a dead bat, or any other dead wild animal, you may want to contact the local Ministry of Environment, Wildlife Branch, as the local biologist may want to examine it. Remember, don't touch the dead bat or animal! 
  • If you will be traveling for a month or more to areas where rabies is often found in a number of different animals, consider being vaccinated against rabies before you go. Consult a travel clinic.
  • What if you were bitten in another country? Rabies is not well controlled in many other parts of the world. If you are attacked and bitten by any animal, especially an unprovoked attack, you should get medical advice about rabies prevention, no matter how long ago you were bitten. If you receive vaccinations outside Canada and the U.S.A., obtain the name of the immune globulin and vaccine provided (if possible, obtain the labels or packaging). Only certain products are approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) for preventing human rabies.
  • If you do not have access to WHO-approved immune globulin and vaccine, consider returning to Canada immediately for medical attention.   
Last Updated: June 25, 2014