Rabies is a preventable viral infection of the central nervous system in mammals. The virus is typically transmitted by the bite of an infected animal. People can, in rare instances, contract rabies if infectious material, such as saliva, from a rabid animal gets into their eyes, nose, mouth or a wound. You cannot get rabies from just seeing a bat, from simply being in a room with a bat or from contact with bat guano (feces), urine or blood. And the vast majority of bats do not have rabies.
No subject has generated more misinformation and fear about bats than rabies. So let's look at the facts. Worldwide, more than 55,000 people are estimated to die of rabies each year (World Health Organization), primarily from contacts with rabid dogs. In industrialized countries, most dogs and cats are now vaccinated against rabies, and the disease is rare in humans and usually results from contact with rabid wildlife, particularly bats. In the United States from 1995 through 2009, an average of two people per year have died of rabies associated with bats.
With proper education, the presence of bats does not pose public health conflicts. For example, approximately 1½ million Mexican free-tailed bats live under the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin, Texas. A well-publicized tourist attraction, the bridge bats attract tens of thousands of people each summer to watch the bats emerge in the evenings on their nightly insect hunts. No human case of bat-transmitted rabies has ever been recorded in Austin or surrounding communities.
Rabies is readily prevented by post-contact vaccination, but is almost always fatal after symptoms appear. Prompt medical advice is essential following a bite by a bat or other animal. If the bat can be safely captured (as in a box or can), it should be sent to a laboratory for testing. People usually know when they've been bitten, but bats have small teeth and bite marks may not be apparent. If you find a bat in the room of an unattended child or near a mentally impaired or intoxicated person, seek medical advice.
The modern rabies vaccine is safe and effective. Anyone who handles wild animals should obtain pre-exposure immunization, and anyone bitten or exposed to the saliva or nerve tissue of a rabies-suspect animal should immediately obtain post-exposure vaccination. This vaccination has been simplified and no longer requires a lengthy series of shots as it did in the past; four shots are administered over a period of two weeks and are usually given in the upper arm.
A bat that can be easily approached by humans is much more likely than other bats to be sick, and it may bite if handled. Do not touch or handle a bat or any other wild animal and there is little chance of being bitten. Teach children to never handle any wild animal.
Bats and Histoplasmosis
Histoplasmosis is a respiratory disease caused by a fungus that grows in soil enriched by animal droppings, including those from bats. Ninety percent of all reported cases in humans come from the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys and adjacent areas where warm, humid conditions favor fungal growth. The disease is rare or nonexistent in most of Canada and in the far northern and western United States. The majority of cases are asymptomatic or involve flu-like symptoms, though some individuals become seriously ill, especially if exposed to large quantities of spore-laden dust. To be safe, avoid breathing dust in areas where there are animal droppings; if you must clean an area of bat or bird droppings, wear a respirator that can guard against particles as small as two microns.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides instructions on what to do if you think you may have been exposed to rabies. State-by-state contacts are listed under "Resources."