An article captioned, "Girl Near Death in First Rabies Case Since '83," recently appeared in the USA TODAY. The 12-year-old girl lived in Houston, Texas and had no known exposure to a potentially rabid animal. Houston's chief veterinarian provided scary speculation that the girl had been bitten by a bat, despite a complete lack of evidence.
When the girl died, a brain biopsy was submitted for monoclonal antibody study. Results reported 24 August 1984 in the U. S. Public Health Service MORBIDITY AND MORTALITY WEEKLY REPORT indicated that the rabies virus involved did not come from a bat.
Health officials must be educated to provide constructive advice, not just panic-producing speculation. In this case a discussion of all possible sources, including a warning to vaccinate all pets and to avoid all unfamiliar or potentially sick animals, was needed. If bats were suspected, the warning certainly should have mentioned the potential danger of picking up a grounded bat. Cases such as this may frighten people into using counterproductive extermination measures, only increasing the likelihood of exposure to a rabid bat.
Appropriate advice on bats should include:
1) warning not to handle; 2)how best to exclude from living quarters; 3) their value outdoors; and 4) putting the danger in perspective (few bats, less than half of one percent, become rabid, and even those very rarely become aggressive). The most important advice is to teach children, that though they can safely enjoy watching bats, they should never attempt to handle them.
For further information, see "Bats and Public Health" (available from BCI), BATS (June, 1984), NATIONAL WILDLIFE (August/September, 1982), and AUDUBON (October, 1984).