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Michigan County confirms bat has rabies, more transmissions to follow

A bat infected with rabies was found in a small Michigan county, prompting local health officials to alert residents to the dangers of these animals and animal bites in general. As if the beginning of spring couldn't get any crazier.

Washtenaw County, which has a population of over 300,000, had gone “an extended period” without any rabies-positive animals until Monday when it was confirmed that there was a bat with rabies in its midst. The last time a bat with rabies was seen in the region was in 2022.

“But it is not uncommon for us to see some rabid bats in the county each year,” Ailen Velazquez, epidemiology coordinator for the county health department, said in a news release. “We often see more bat encounters in the summer and fall months, so we want to remind everyone to contact us if you find a bat in your home.”

Michigan residents aren't the only ones at risk. Rabies is “transmitted to people and pets more frequently in the spring and summer due to the increase in outdoor activities,” USA TODAY reported.

The viral disease affects all mammals and is extremely fatal to those who contract it and do not seek appropriate medical care.

Here's what you should know about rabies as the warmer months begin and what symptoms to look out for.

What is Rabies?

It is a viral disease that is usually spread through the bite or scratch of a rabid animal, either from animal to animal or from animal to human. Specifically, direct contact with saliva, broken skin or mucous membranes in the eyes, nose or mouth, USA TODAY's reporting said.

It can also be transmitted through direct contact with brain or nervous system tissue of an infected animal. There is no known risk of infection from petting a rabid animal or coming into contact with blood, urine, or feces from a rabid animal.

The rabies virus infects the central nervous system of all mammals, causing brain disease and eventual death. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is completely preventable if appropriate vaccinations and medical treatment are administered following exposure.

Rabies is primarily found in wild animals such as bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes, at least in the United States. Dogs in other countries still transmit rabies, with most rabies deaths worldwide caused by dog ​​bites, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Do all bats have rabies?

No, not all bats carry rabies. But they can become infected with the virus.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation, only 6% of bats captured and tested for rabies in the U.S. were infected with the virus. Bats make up a third of the 5,000 rabid animals reported in the U.S. each year, but are responsible for about seven out of 10 deaths of people infected with rabies, according to 2019 data from the CDC.

Bats carry the rabies virus in every U.S. state except Hawaii, USA TODAY reported.

What are common rabies symptoms?

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, it is very rare for people to contract rabies. One or two cases are reported every year.

There is a human rabies vaccine that the CDC recommends for people at higher risk of exposure, including those who work with potentially infected animals and others who may travel to remote areas in countries with many stray dogs.

After exposure, there is an incubation period during which the virus enters the brain. The length of the incubation period varies from weeks to months and depends on the location of the exposure site on the body, the type of rabies virus and existing immunity, USA TODAY reported.

The symptoms are similar in humans and animals.

The symptoms of rabies are similar to those you might have if you have the flu. These include weakness or malaise, fever or headache. You will also feel a tingling or itching sensation at the bite site that can last for days.

Symptoms progress and become more severe over time. These include cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, confusion, agitation, delirium, abnormal behavior, hallucinations, hydrophobia and insomnia.

Once clinical signs of rabies appear, the disease is almost always fatal, with fewer than 20 documented cases of people surviving rabies, according to the CDC. It is important to seek medical attention immediately if you suspect that you or an animal you know may have rabies.

For those in Washtenaw County, residents can report bat exposures and/or animal bites here.

Anna Harden

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