Rabid bat bites Mesa girl; life-saving treatment under way

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- An East Valley girl is undergoing treatment after being bitten by a rabid bat last weekend.

Tests by the Arizona State Public Health Laboratory confirmed this week that the bat had rabies, which officials say is more common than people might think. This is the first rabid bat confirmed in Maricopa County this year.

It's not clear how the school-age girl came into contact with the bat.

"Although it does not appear that this child was playing with the bat, every year we have school-aged children who voluntarily come into contact with bats. It is important that parents and teachers remind students NEVER to touch a bat -- dead or alive," said Dr. Bob England, director of Maricopa County Department of Public Health, said in a news release.

Health officials said the Mesa girl was bitten by a southern yellow bat, which is an insect eater and commonly roosts in foliage, including the untrimmed palm frond "skirts."

There is no cure for rabies. The disease is always fatal in humans once symptoms manifest. That's why the girl was started on an immediate course of post-exposure treatment, which includes one dose of rabies immune globulin and five does of rabies vaccine over 28 days. Because she received prompt treatment, she is expected to be just fine.

"Without medical care the rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death," reads the Maricopa County Department of Health's rabies Web page. "The early symptoms of rabies in people are similar to that of many other illnesses, including fever, headache, and general weakness or discomfort.

"As the disease progresses, more specific symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation (increase in saliva), difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of these symptoms."

"Rabies is a prevalent disease in wildlife in Arizona and can affect pets and people," said Dr. Rodrigo Silva, director of Maricopa County Animal Care and Control. "It is very important to keep your pet's rabies vaccination current."

While any mammal can contract rabies, in Arizona it most often shows up in big brown bats (pictured above), skunks and grey foxes. Pima, Santa Cruz, Cochise, and Coconino counties have the highest number of animals that test positive for rabies, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Rabid animals can become extremely aggressive, showing no fear of people or other animals. Other symptoms include abnormal behavior like nocturnal animals being out during the day. Bats found on the ground, in swimming pools or those caught by pets often are rabid.

According to the CDC, rabid bats have been found in every state expect Hawaii. Transmission of the disease can happen with the smallest, most seemingly insignificant bites or scratches. Any break in the skin, no matter how tiny, is a potential exposure point.

People picking up or otherwise handling a sick or dead bat is generally the most common rabies exposure. People who try to approach or feed sick wild animals also risk exposure. The virus makes the animals fearless and prone to biting.

In May, a rabid mountain lion attacked a group of campers in the Tonto National Forest in Gila County.

Last year, rabies was confirmed in five animals in Maricopa County -- three bats, one bobcat and one javelina.

Because rabies tests involve brain tissue, a necropsy is required to confirm the presence of the virus in an animal. The results can take some time and time is of the essence in potential human rabies cases, which is why doctors recommend immediate post-exposure treatment.

All bite or contact exposures should be reported immediately to local animal control or health officials.

Reports of suspect rabies infection in livestock and the quarantine of livestock that bite humans should be handled by the Arizona State Veterinarian's office in Phoenix: 602-542-4293.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, about 30 people come into some kind of contact with rabid animals each year.

The last documented human death from rabies was in 1981.

Recommended precautions against rabies:

Keep people and pets away from wild animals. Do not pick up, touch, or feed wild or unfamiliar animals, especially sick or wounded ones. If someone has been bitten or scratched, or has had contact with the animal, report it immediately to animal control or health officials.

Do not "rescue" seemingly abandoned young wild animals. Usually, the mother will return. If the mother is dead or has not returned in many hours, call the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Spay or neuter your pets to help reduce the number of unwanted pets that may not be properly cared for or vaccinated regularly.

Vaccinate all dogs and cats against rabies. Pets should be kept in a fenced yard.

Take precautions when camping, hunting or fishing. Avoid sleeping on the open ground without the protection of a closed tent or camper. Keep pets on a leash and do not allow them to wander.

Do not disturb roosting bats.

If you find a bat on the ground, don't touch it. Report the bat and its location to your local animal control officer or health department. Place a box over the bat to contain it. Be careful not to damage the bat in any way since it must be intact for rabies testing.