It’s that time of year again, when ghoulies and goblins take to the streets, begging for treats and accumulating heaps of sugary treasure. And while the blogosphere is alive with advice on costume design and safety tips, I’d like to side-step these issues and draw your attention to a topic you might not think about—bats!
Okay, you MIGHT think about bats. It is Halloween, after all. But did you know bats are the leading source of rabies in the United States? In fact, the risk is so great that discovering a bat in your home is reason to seek immediate medical attention, even if there’s no evidence of a bite or scratch.
So what is rabies? Why is it dangerous? And what’s the deal with all the shots?
“Rabies” is the Latin word for madness, and it’s an apt description. The image of a foaming-at-the-mouth out-of-control dog probably comes to mind. Fortunately, responsible pet owners and vaccine programs have greatly reduced the incidence of rabies in American dogs. But in other parts of the world, fifty-five thousand people die each year from rabid dog bites.
Raccoons, skunks and foxes are still common carriers of rabies in the United States, but the most common carrier of all is the bat. And bats are sneaky, swooping down and inflicting tiny bites and scratches you might not notice… until it’s too late.
Rabies is caused by the Lyssavirus, “Lyssa” being the Greek goddess of madness, rage and frenzy. The virus enters your body from the saliva-filled bite or scratch of an infected animal. From there it begins a multi-week journey up a peripheral nerve to your brain.
Now, don’t let the initial lack of symptoms fool you. Once the Lyssavirus arrives at its final destination, it begins to wreak havoc. And once the symptoms start, there’s no stopping them.
The disease begins with flu-like symptoms, but these rapidly progress to anxiety, confusion, agitation, aggression, insomnia, hallucinations, terror and delirium. Next, you become weak, and paralysis sets in. You have trouble swallowing. You drool. You foam at the mouth. You go mad.
Because death is nearly universal, preventing the onset of symptoms is critical, and that’s where the rabies shot comes in.
Back in 1885, Louis Pasteur and two assistants obtained the virus from the jaws of a rabid dog (really!). They cultured the virus in rabbits and then weakened it by drying out the infected nerve tissue.
In those days, 21 shots were given under the skin of the abdomen over a 3-week period. Pain, redness and swelling were intense. Serious neurological damage from the vaccine was common, but better than the alternative.
Today’s rabies shots are safe. They are injected deep in the muscle of the upper arm with four injections over a 2-week period.
Bottom line: watch out for bats this Halloween. If you find one in the house or come into contact while out and about, seek medical help right away!
Dr Mike Patrick is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Medical Director of Interactive Media for Nationwide Children's Hospital. Since 2006, he has hosted the award-winning PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents. Dr Mike also produces a national podcast for healthcare providers—PediaCast CME, which explores general pediatric and faculty development topics and offers free AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ to listeners.
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