It’s been a busy month in the world of bat news.
In early August, a bat found its way onto a Delta airplane headed from Madison, Wis., to Atlanta. It escaped before officials could catch it, so there’s no way to know whether it was rabid. Delta has been tracking down passengers to make sure nobody got bitten or scratched; if anybody had been, they’d need to be vaccinated for rabies right away.
Around the same time, bats were reported living in an apartment complex in Aberdeen, Md. More than 30 have undergone vaccination as a precaution.
And a week ago, the Centers for Disease Control released a report about a 19-year-old Mexican migrant worker who was hospitalized last August in New Orleans for symptoms of what turned out to be rabies. After he was diagnosed, his mother reported that he had been bitten on the heel by a bat while in Mexico a few weeks earlier but had not sought medical care. With the grim prospects for his survival spelled out for them, his family had the hospital remove the tubes that were keeping him alive.
I try to be rational, but rabies scares the daylights out of me. Yes, I know the disease is exceedingly rare; most years, no more than one or two people succumb. And if you’re aware you’ve been exposed, prophylactic rabies shots will keep you safe. But rabies is fatal once symptoms show up.
Bat bites have become the leading source of rabies infection in the U.S. Because their bites are tiny and usually painless, it’s possible to be bitten without knowing it.
While the young Mexican man’s symptoms seemed to have appeared about 15 days after his exposure to rabies, the CDC report notes that the typical incubation period is about 85 days. That’s almost three months. So if you got bit by a bat tonight, you wouldn’t likely start feeling fatigued, achy and feverish until, say, mid-November.
Thankfully, only a tiny percentage of bats in North America carry rabies; one recent Canadian study says it’s around 1 percent. And you can’t get rabies just from being in the same room, cave or airplane as a rabid bat; the creature’s rabies-ridden saliva needs to enter your body through a bite or scratch wound.
Still, I cast a wary eye on the bats that swoop around the eaves of my house at twilight on these summer nights. As long as they stay outside eating mosquitoes, I’m fine.