The BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) is reminding British Columbians that warm weather brings an increased risk of contact between people and wild animals, which brings a greater risk of exposure to rabies.
Rabies is a very serious disease caused by the rabies virus, which infects the brain and nervous system. If untreated, it can be fatal over 99 per cent of the time. The disease can be prevented with a vaccine that must be administered immediately after exposure, and before symptoms begin. Symptoms of rabies include headache, fever, increasing difficulty in swallowing, excessive drooling, muscle spasm or weakness, and strange behaviour. Coma and death can follow within one to two weeks of symptom onset.
In 2009, there were 167 reports of possible exposure to animal rabies in BC and 143 of these people were subsequently vaccinated. While any mammal can carry rabies, currently in BC, only bats are known to carry the virus.
"People should avoid contact with bats," explains Ken Cooper, BCCDC senior environmental health specialist. "If anyone has been bitten or scratched by, or had any direct physical contact with a bat, they should seek immediate medical attention as immunization is ineffective once symptoms develop."
Rabies is very rare among humans in Canada. The two most recent human cases of rabies in BC residents - both linked to a bat strain of the virus - were in 1985 and 2003 and both were fatal. The infection rate of rabies in bat populations is low and each situation of bat-human contact must be carefully evaluated to determine the type of medical response needed.
"Although there is virtually no risk of rabies from other wild animals in BC - such as skunks, foxes, raccoons and coyotes - people should seek medical advice immediately after contact, especially if the animal acted strangely. Also, a tetanus shot may be needed," warns Cooper.
The best approach is prevention:
* Do not touch live or dead bats.
* Make your home or cabin 'bat proof'. Watch for bats that may have overwintered in cabins opened up for the summer season. Keep your doors and windows closed or screened (make sure the screens don't have any holes), and keep your attic area free of bats by ensuring all vents are properly screened.
* If a bat enters a room, leave the window open and close off interior doors until the bat leaves.
* Seek professional bat-control advice if you observe bats at your work or home.
* If you have a pet dog, cat or ferret, talk to your veterinarian about keeping your pet's rabies vaccination up to date.
* Warn children about the risks - tell them not to approach wildlife or handle bats.
People who have been bitten or scratched by a bat (or other animals), or who have handled a bat should immediately do the following:
* Thoroughly wash the bite or scratch with soap and water, using lots of water under moderate pressure to flush the wound for at least five minutes.
* If you have handled a bat, wash hands thoroughly with soap and water.
* Seek medical attention right away and call your public health unit.
* If possible, keep the bat for testing, but do not risk further exposure.
For more information on rabies:
* Visit the rabies information page www.bccdc.ca/dis-cond/a-z/_r/Rabies/default.htm
* Call HealthLink BC at 811.
* View the BC HealthFile on Rabies at their website www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthfiles/hfile07.stm
* View the Ministry of Environment info on rabies at their website HERE
or phone the provincial bat specialist at 250-387-9755.