Although rabies has been recognized for thousands of years, it is a disease that continues to plague mankind, reports Annette Seibold, Director of the Florence County Health Department.
Around the world, 55,000 people - mostly young children - die from this viral infection each year.
In Wisconsin, there have been three cases of human rabies reported since 2000, with the most recent case in 2010. As a precaution, state health officials are reminding people to take steps to minimize potential exposure to the infection.
In Wisconsin, rabid bats are the leading cause of infection in humans, Seibold said.
In the past five years, 128 cases of animal rabies have been diagnosed in Wisconsin. Of those, 122 were rabid bats. Most of the human rabies cases acquired within the U.S. during the past 20 years were due to strains of rabies carried by bats.
"Rabies is incurable and virtually always fatal once symptoms appear," said Dr. Henry Anderson, Wisconsin State Health Officer. "The good news is that it can be prevented by avoiding exposure to it, or by receiving preventive vaccinations after a high-risk exposure has occurred."
Rabies is spread to humans through contact with a rabid animal, usually from a bite.
Yet assessing the risk from bat exposures can be tricky.
Unlike bites or scratches from other mammals, those from a bat can result in a wound so tiny as to be nearly invisible, and the slight amount of pain produced may go unnoticed by a deeply sleeping person.
"It may seem an unlikely possibility, but even people with very minor exposures to bats have contracted rabies," said Dr. Anderson.
The CDC recommends rabies vaccination if a bat is found in close proximity to a sleeping person or a previously unattended baby, unless a laboratory can confirm that the bat did not have rabies.
For this reason, people who have had any possibility of physical contact with a bat, even without a known bite, should have the animal safely captured and held until a public health official or a physician can be consulted.
This way, a laboratory can determine if a bat is infected and whether the individuals exposed to it require rabies vaccinations.
Only about 3 to 4 percent of bats tested by the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene are infected with the rabies virus.
It should be noted that domestic animals which are exposed to rabies constitute a very real threat to their human owners, particularly if the animal is unvaccinated.
In addition to avoiding contact with bats, experts recommend the following measures to minimize exposure to rabies:
- Vaccinate pet dogs, cats, ferrets and livestock against rabies. Because bats may be found indoors, even pets that do not go outside should be vaccinated.
- Enforce leash laws and contact local humane associations if help is needed to shelter and find homes for stray dogs and cats.
- Stay away from all wild animals, especially those acting abnormally.
- Teach children not to approach any unfamiliar animals, even if they appear friendly.
- Do not keep exotic or wild animals as pets.
- Keep screens in good repair and close any small opening bats could enter.
- If bats are living in parts of your home, consult with a wildlife control expert about having them removed. Autumn is an ideal time to bat-proof your home.
- Individuals traveling to developing countries where rabies is highly prevalent, or who are at ongoing risk of possible rabies exposure, such as veterinarians and animal control officers, should ask their doctor about receiving pre-exposure rabies vaccinations.
- Members of the public should contact their local public health department (county or municipal) and their health care provider regarding animal bite/rabies concerns. During off-hours, animal bite calls may be handled by local law enforcement personnel.
The Communicable Disease Epidemiology Section of the Wisconsin Division of Public Health offers consultation on situations involving potential human exposures to rabies at 608-267-9003.