A bat that had human contact tested positive for rabies last week, Flathead City-County Health Department officials announced on Monday.
The bat is the first confirmed case of animal rabies in the county in 2023. The disease is spread to humans through bites or scratches from infected animals, or from saliva of an infected animal if it contacts the eyes, nose, mouth or open skin wounds. The virus infects the central nervous system and can cause fatal inflammation in the brain. Montana has not recorded a human death caused by rabies since 1997, according to the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
After a rabies exposure, a person who has not previously been vaccinated for rabies is given a dose of human rabies immune globulin (HRIG), which provides immediate antibodies. A person then receives shots of the rabies on the day of exposure and then on days three, seven and 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The shot is administered by injection in the arm. For people with a rabies exposure who have previously been vaccinated for rabies or received a pre-exposure vaccination, they will receive only the vaccine. The CDC advises that post exposure prophylaxis, the term for treatment after a potential rabies exposure, should begin as soon as possible after exposure.
Conclusively determining a rabies exposure requires that the animal suspected of carrying the disease is tested. If the animal is unavailable for testing and a person or animal has been bitten, scratched or directly in contact with an animal suspected of having rabies, it’s considered a rabies exposure and treatment needs to be undertaken.
The health department noted that a special concern when it comes to bats and rabies exposure is that a bat bite many not be noticeable. In cases where a bat is found in an area where contact may have occurred undetected, like a bedroom where an adult or child sleeps, the animal should be tested for rabies.
In the case of a bat, the brain and head of the animal must be intact and the carcass should be refrigerated, but not frozen, until it is sent off for testing. The health department will cover the cost of testing for a bat or animal that has had human contact. Additional instructions on how to safely capture a bat for testing can be found on the county health department’s website at https://www.flatheadhealth.org/rabies-control/. People can also call the health department’s communicable disease office at 406-751-8117 to discuss potential exposure and proper procedures.
“We urge residents to be cautious around bats. If you or your pet has had direct contact with a bat, please contact the Health Department to ensure proper handling and testing,” Health Officer Jen Rankosky said in a statement.
Bat activity usually declines in the fall and winter months, but the health department is still responding to the positive case by reminding people not to feed or handle wild animals, especially bats, and for people to teach their children not to touch wild animals or handle bats, even if they are dead. County residents should also be on the lookout for abnormal animal behavior, like seeing skunks and bats during the daytime. If someone observes an animal acting out of the ordinary and think it could pose a risk, law enforcement or animal control should be contacted.
Similarly, the health department advises that children should be told to alert an adult if they see or find a bat. People should also ensure their dogs and cats are vaccinated against rabies, and to bat-proof homes by placing screens on all windows, doors and chimneys to prevent the winged animals from entering. Bats can also be prevented from roosting in attics or buildings by covering outside entry points.
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