Bats Now Pose Greatest Risk for Rabies
in the US

Megan Brooks

June 12, 2019

Rabies continues to be a threat in the United States — with someone treated every 10 minutes for possible exposure to the virus — and bats are now the major source of human cases in the US, according to a Vital Signs report released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"Dramatic shifts have occurred in the United States in which animals pose the most risk for human rabies," Anne Schuchat, MD, CDC principal deputy director, said during a press briefing.

Before 1960, bites from rabid dogs caused most human rabies cases in the US. But mass pet vaccination programs and leash laws enacted in the 1950s significantly reduced rabies in dogs.

Currently, the US averages one to three human cases of rabies a year, down from 30 to 50 cases annually in the 1940s, largely due to routine pet vaccination and availability of postexposure prophylaxis (PEP), Schuchat said.

"Starting in 2015, the number of rabid bats reported surpassed the number of rabid raccoons for the first time, and the gap has been widening ever since," Schuchat said.

Bats made up roughly 32% of the 5000 rabid animals tested in 2017 whereas raccoons made up 28%, she noted. "In the United States, while bats make up about a third of all rabid animals reported, they are responsible for more than two thirds of all rabies deaths in people. That is, 7 in 10 Americans who die from rabies in the United States were infected by bats."

Bat Bites "Can Go Unnoticed"

In their Vital Signs report, CDC veterinarian Emily Pieracci, DVM, and colleagues report that from 1960 to 2018, a total of 125 human rabies cases were reported in the United States; 36 (28%) were attributed to dog bites during international travel. Among the 89 infections acquired in the US, 62 (70%) were attributed to bats. In 2018, approximately 55,000 people sought PEP after contact with a potentially rabid animal.

"We want this Vital Signs [report] to raise awareness about specific rabies risks," Schuchat said. 

"People may not realize that bats carry rabies so they may not see their medical provider after touching or handling a bat. Bat bites are small —smaller than the top of a pencil eraser — and can go unnoticed. This is a problem because rabies is deadly once symptoms start," said Schuchat.

"Bats play a critical role in our ecosystem, and it is important [that] people know that most of the bats in the US are not rabid," Pieracci said in a news release. "The problem comes when people try to handle bats they think are healthy, because you really can’t tell if an animal has rabies just by looking at it. The best advice is to avoid contact with bats — and other wildlife — to protect yourself from rabies."

MMWR. Published June 12, 2019. Full text

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