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Summit Outside: Bats, vampires and rabies

Joanne Stolen
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily
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Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a multi-part series on bats.

Bats have been mistakenly associated with vampires and rabies, but bats are actually not a major carrier of rabies. The fact that there is a species of bat called the “vampire” bat and rabies is actually associated with the vampire legend makes the connection persist.

Early stories of vampirism often coincided with reports of rabies outbreaks in and around the Balkans or Transylvania. It is believed that Count Dracula’s bizarre behavior was attributed to his having an advanced stage of rabies. Many of the legendary symptoms matched: sensitivity to light, hence activity during the night; sensitivity to smell, so the belief that garlic would ward off vampires; biting and infecting other people. Another symptom of rabies is aggressiveness and hypersexuality. Werewolves in the area were probably rabid animals.

Rabies can be controlled by vaccination. Louis Pasteur developed the first rabies vaccine in 1885 and since then there exists a safe, effective vaccine for people and animals. Most states require that our pets be immunized against rabies. Mass vaccination of wildlife has been made possible by putting a vaccine in bait.

There is a widespread misconception that bats are carriers of disease when in fact, bats are very clean mammals that harbor few diseases. Rabies is the most significant public health hazard associated with bats, but its impact has been exaggerated. There have been isolated instances of rabid bats biting people in Colorado, but prompt medical treatment has prevented the disease from being fatal. Bat-transmitted rabies is not epidemic and fewer than 20 human deaths from bat-transmitted rabies have been documented in the past 40 years. In North America, deaths from bat transmitted rabies are a small fraction of those from rabies transmitted by dogs, cats or other warm-blooded animals. Most bats don’t have rabies, and of the weak or sick bats captured, only about 6 percent had rabies.

You usually can’t tell if a bat has rabies by looking at it. Rabies can only be confirmed by laboratory tests, but any bat that is active by day or is found in a place where bats are not usually seen just might be rabid. A bat that is unable to fly and is easily approached could very well be sick.

People often know when they’ve been bitten by a bat, but most types of bats have very small teeth which may leave marks that disappear quickly. Rabies is a fatal, viral disease but a vaccine administered soon after infection provides protection from developing rabies. Deaths are caused by not recognizing the risk of rabies from the bite of a potentially rabid wild animal and not getting medical attention. The incubation period from infection to onset of symptoms can be from 1-3 months, which is quite long and allows vaccination to provide immunity against the disease.

When an animal is infected with the rabies virus, the virus multiplies within the body. At some point, the rabies virus will travel along nerve cells to the brain where it multiplies very quickly, and the unmistakable signs of rabies develop. If a vaccine is given promptly after a potential infection, the virus can be prevented from traveling to the nerves and the brain. Once the virus gets into the nerves and brain there is no cure.

If you are bitten by a bat, or if saliva or brain material from a bat gets into your eyes, nose, mouth, or a wound, wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water and get medical attention. You can’t get rabies from having contact with bat guano, blood, or urine, or from touching bat fur.

Vampire bats are bats whose food source is blood. There are three bat species that feed solely on blood, and all three species are native to the Americas, ranging from Mexico to Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. They live in arid to humid, tropical and sub-tropical areas, so we do not have vampire bats in Summit County.

Vampire bats tend to live in colonies in dark places, such as caves, old wells, hollow trees and buildings. The vampire bat has a short, conical muzzle and has receptors sensitive to heat on its nose. This aids the animal in locating areas where the blood flows close to the skin of its prey. Part of the bat’s brain that processes sound is well adapted to detecting the regular breathing sounds of sleeping animals. Sleeping cattle and horses are their usual victims. Vampire bats strike their victims from the ground, landing near their prey and approaching it on all fours. They locate a suitable place to bite using their infrared sensors, and then they create a small incision with their teeth and lap up blood from the wound.

The bat’s saliva, which is injected into the victim, plays a key role in allowing the bat to feed from the wound. The saliva contains several compounds that prolong bleeding, such as anticoagulants that inhibit blood clotting, and compounds that prevent the constriction of blood vessels near the wound. The unique properties of the vampire bats’ saliva has been used in medicine: the anticoagulant properties are shown to increase blood flow in stroke patients.

Unfortunately, because of many misconceptions in some regions, local populations of bats have been destroyed and many species are now endangered. We need to protect these very unique mammals and learn more about their habits and appreciate the value of living safely with them.

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.


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