CDC reminder: Bats are the leading rabies vector in the US

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Bats are responsible for roughly seven in 10 rabies deaths among people who are infected with the rabies virus in the United States. The reason may be because people may not know the risk bats pose, according to a Vital Signs report released June 12 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The large percentage of deaths tied to bats is notable, the agency says, as bats account for just a third of the 5,000 rabid animals reported each year in America. Rabid dogs that people encounter while traveling overseas are the second-leading cause of rabies cases in Americans.

The U.S. averages one to three human cases of rabies a year now, down from 30-50 cases a year in the 1940s. This decrease is largely because of routine pet vaccination and the availability of post-exposure prophylaxis. Each year, about 55,000 people in the U.S. seek PEP after a potential rabies exposure.

The U.S. rabies landscape has shifted dramatically during the past 81 years. Before 1960, bites from rabid dogs caused most human rabies cases in the U.S. Mass pet-vaccination programs and leash laws enacted in the 1950s significantly reduced rabies in dogs.

As rabies in dogs declined, rabies in bats, raccoons, foxes, and skunks became more apparent.

Avoiding wildlife, especially bats, is key to preventing rabies in people, according to the CDC. Bats carry the rabies virus in every U.S. state except Hawaii and can spread the virus year-round. However, anecdotal case reports suggest that people may not be fully aware that bats pose a rabies risk, and so they may not seek life-saving rabies PEP if they are bitten or scratched by a bat.

"Bats play a critical role in our ecosystem and it is important people know that most of the bats in the U.S. are not rabid," said Dr. Emily Pieracci, a CDC veterinarian and lead author of the Vital Signs report. "The problem comes when people try to handle bats they think are healthy because you really can't tell if an animal has rabies just by looking at it.

"The best advice is to avoid contact with bats—and other wildlife—to protect yourself from rabies."

Bats in flight
Most human rabies deaths in the U.S. are attributable to bats, more than raccoons, foxes, and skunks. (Photo by Ann Froschauer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Related JAVMA content:

New guidance for pets exposed to rabies (March 1, 2016)