According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), five people died of rabies in the U.S. in 2021, three of them within a five-week period in the fall.
This follows two years of zero rabies cases reported in the U.S. and is the highest number reported in more than a decade per year, according to the CDC. The three cases, including one child, were all exposed to bats in or around their homes between Sept. 28 and Nov. 3, and none of them sought post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), a series of vaccines vital for preventing rabies. after exposure.
Deaths from rabies in the US are rare, with typically one to three cases per year. But the recent uptick prompted the CDC to raise awareness about the risks of the deadly disease. Since the numbers of rabid bats reported to the National Rabies Surveillance System have been about the same since 2007, the recent increase may not be due to an increase in rabid bat numbers, but rather a lack of awareness about the risks of rabies. and the need for receiving PEP, according to a statement.
Related: Photos: Arizona’s Eerily Beautiful Bats
Rabies is caused by a virus that infects the central nervous system and is most commonly spread through a bite or scratch from a rabid animal, according to the CDC. PEP is nearly 100% effective in preventing the person from developing rabies before symptoms appear; once symptoms appear, rabies is almost always fatal, according to the statement. According to the statement, about 60,000 people in the US get the injections to prevent rabies every year.
“We’ve come a long way in the United States toward reducing the number of people who become infected with rabies each year, but this recent spate of cases is a sobering reminder that contact with bats poses a real health risk,” he said. Ryan Wallace, a veterinarian and rabies expert in the CDC division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology, said in the statement.
In the US, about 70% of rabies cases involve exposure to rabid bats. Two of the three cases reported in the fall were “avoidable exposures,” the statement said. In one case, a patient picked up a bat with bare hands, and in the other case, they were exposed to a bat roost in their home. Two of the patients released the bat without having it tested for rabies.
One patient submitted the bat for testing and the bat tested positive, but the patient did not receive PEP due to fear of vaccines, the report said. The other two patients didn’t realize the risk because they either didn’t notice a bite or scratch, or they didn’t know that bats could carry rabies.
You can’t always see bat bites or scratches, so any direct or potential contact with bats, even through clothing, should be evaluated by doctors or other health officials to see if PEP is needed, according to the statement. Potential contact can occur, for example, if a bat is found in a room where someone is sleeping or in a room where a child is alone.
In addition to conducting potential exposures from your doctor, people should call the state or local health department or animal control center to capture and test the bat to help determine the need for PEP. (The CDC also has instructions for safely catching the bat yourself.)
But of course, “avoiding contact with bats is the best way to protect both bats and human health,” the authors wrote in the report. Bats aren’t the only carriers of rabies, and humans can also be exposed through other wildlife such as raccoons, skunks and foxes, the CDC said. Most rabies deaths around the world result from rabid dog bites.
Originally published on Live Science.