You wake up one morning and discover a bat fluttering around in your bedroom. Concerned, you wonder if this is a problem, and seem to recall that bats may harbor rabies. What should you do
Rabies is a virus that can be transmitted by animal bites. In the state of Washington, bats are the primary animal carrier. Never touch a bat with your bare hands, even if it is dead.
If contracted, rabies is nearly universally fatal. Fortunately, prompt medical attention can significantly reduce the risk, and in our state, rabies in humans is exceedingly rare. The last known deaths in Washington State appear to have been in 1995 and 1997.
If there has been an exposure to an animal suspected of carrying rabies, treatment consists of a series of intramuscular injections, starting with both immune globulin and vaccine on the first day, and then a series of subsequent vaccine-only injections over the next two weeks.
According to Sammy Berg with the Thurston County Public Health and Social Services (PHSS), the emergency department (ED) is often the place where the first doses are received, due to its 24/7 hours and the availability of the immune globulin. Berg says, “The health department evaluates all reports to determine if there has been a credible exposure,” and the ED can also a layer of screening, as not all animal exposures are necessarily high risk for rabies. There are also some local urgent care facilities that carry both the immune globulin and the vaccine series.
While the ED can administer the entire series, it’s likely to be the more expensive option for patients. Primary care providers are able to administer the shots, but typically do not stock the vaccines, which can be expensive to carry. Berg notes that there are some pharmacies that may be able to administer the vaccines via an in-house travel clinic, but the patient will have to contact their insurance carrier to determine coverage. Thus, urgent care facilities with both the immune globulin and vaccine may represent the best options for patients during their normal hours of operation.
The Washington State Department of Health has guidelines on how to safely capture a bat for rabies testing. Berg notes, “If the bat is not able to be procured for testing, we have to assume that it’s positive for rabies and the patient will need to get the full vaccine series. Conversely, if the bat is procured, and there’s a negative test, then the patient may be able to avoid getting more injections.”
If you have had an encounter with an animal and are concerned for an exposure to rabies, contact your local health care provider and health department. For more information on rabies in Washington State, see the Department of Health’s rabies webpage.
Dan Hu is a freelance writer based in Olympia.