Rabies Death Heightens Awareness of Virus in Bats
Historically, rabies came with a warning.
A dog or other infected animal, staggering, perhaps foaming at the mouth, would launch an attack for no apparent reason.
Seeing this, people knew to back away.
Pet vaccinations and prompt medical treatment have all but eliminated human loss of life due to rabies. Until last week, the last death due to rabies in Massachusetts was recorded in 1935.
But a Barnstable man died Monday in a Boston hospital, the victim of an attack which came in a way for which little or no warning or protection exists.
A rabid bat likely got into his house and bit him, perhaps without his even being aware of it because such bites can have the size and appearance of a pin prick.
Kevin Galvin, 63, of the Barnstable village of Marstons Mills died Monday at Massachusetts General Hospital, according to the Cape Cod Times. State and local public health officials would not confirm the cause of death, The Times reported.
His obituary did not specify a cause of death, but the Times obtained his death certificate at Boston City Hall on Friday. The certificate listed rabies encephalitis as the cause of death.
Since 1995, rabid bats have been responsible for 32 of the 33 cases of rabies in those contracted the illness in this country and died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Nevertheless, simply finding a bat in your home “should not necessarily be a cause for alarm and does not necessarily mean that an exposure to rabies has occurred,” said Jennifer L. Manley, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Health. “Less than 1 percent of bats in the wild are likely to be infected with rabies at any given time.”
Rabies Signs and Symptom
Rabies, which attacks the central nervous system of an infected person or animal, is caused by a virus spread through saliva. The illness has been known for at least 4,000 years.
Rabies in bats was first detected in Massachusetts in 1961. Raccoon rabies appeared in Massachusetts in 1992, and that form has also spread to skunks and foxes.
The number of rabies-related human deaths in the United States has declined from more than 100 annually in the early 1900s to one or two a year now.
Modern-day treatment following an exposure to the virus is nearly 100 percent effective. However, if the infection goes untreated, as it did with the man in Barnstable, once the symptoms appear, rabies is nearly always fatal.
In December, a Montague man was bitten by a fox that tested positive for rabies. However, treatment, which involves a series of shots, was immediate, and the man is expected to recover.
According to the Centers for Disease Control website, “In the United States, human fatalities associated with rabies occur in people who fail to seek medical assistance, usually because they were unaware of their exposure.”
That is what makes a bite or scratch from a rabid bat such a concern; it may go unnoticed because bat teeth are small and razor sharp, and a bite or scratch may leave a barely visible mark.
While bat populations have been declining in the region because of a fungal infection that afflicts them called white-nose syndrome, bats, such as the little brown bat, are still abundant, and they often seek shelter in homes to overwinter and can emerge in living areas.
In 2010, nearly 700 bats that were found dead or captured in homes were submitted to the state lab for testing, and about 2 percent were found to be rabid. Bats living in the wild are thought to have a lower rate of infection.
Manley said, “Any direct contact with a bat should be evaluated for an exposure.”
“In addition, situations in which a bat bite might go undetected should also be evaluated as possible exposures,” she said. “Such situations include finding a bat in the same room as a deeply sleeping person, an unattended child, a mentally incapacitated individual, an intoxicated person or a pet.”
And if you are bitten or scratched by any animal, state health officials advise washing the wound with soap and water for 10 minutes and then calling your health care provider to determine if you need to be treated for a rabies exposure.
General Manager - Staff Entomologist