Jared Warner
Jared Warner
By Jared Warner
Health Commissioner
Highland County Health Department

I killed a bat this week, in the name of public health. I am the guy who catches spiders in the house and then lets them go outside, so this part of the job is never fun. But in this case, it was very necessary. This particular bat bit a young girl in her bed on Tuesday morning, the second bat bite to come into our office in the last couple of weeks.

Thus, it seems like a good idea to write a bit about the Highland County Health Department’s rabies program.

Imagine for a moment, lying awake in bed, the first rays of the morning sun drifting through your curtains, your mind swimming with plans for the day when suddenly you feel the slightest bump on the light blanket covering you. You reach your hand down to shift the blanket and investigate and instead of a handful of cotton, your fingers close on something else. A small, furry and angry something else. You get the briefest sensation of dry leathery wings, shaggy fur and hear an ear-piercing squeak just before feeling the sharp sting of tiny teeth.

You have been bitten by a bat.

Fast-forward through what I imagine as screaming, maybe some tears, some nervous and upset parents, some frantic internet searching, and eventually, Mom and the bloodthirsty bat both make their way into the health department.

Mom has one word on her mind: Rabies.

Rabies is a fascinating disease and one with a long and interesting history. It has been recognized as a human disease for at least 4,000 years and remains one of the deadliest infectious diseases that we recognize.

Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Hindus in India and other ancient civilizations recognized the disease and even how it was spread. In some cases, formal laws were even enacted that punished owners of rabid dogs for bites in the community. Some researchers even connect the rabies virus to mythology surrounding early werewolf legends, as people with rabies have low impulse control, fear water, avoid sunlight and can spread the disease to other humans through a bite.

In modern history, only three unvaccinated people are known to have survived a rabies infection (though some evidence in certain populations with high exposure risk challenge this). Rabies virus causes approximately 55,000 deaths worldwide each year, primarily in Africa and Asia. In Ohio, we find rabies primarily in bats and raccoons, though the state lab has tested everything from alpacas to wolves.

Rabies is a virus that attacks the central nervous system, and is generally spread through the bite of an infected animal. Once in the nervous system, rabies travels through the nerves, to the spinal cord, and eventually to the brain. From there, it replicates and passes to the salivary glands, which is when signs of the disease begin to appear. Once in the salivary glands, the virus can then be spread through a bite.

In humans, there is no known cure for rabies. There is, however, very effective post-exposure prophylaxis available. This is a fancy way of saying that doctors can give you medicine after an exposure and still protect you from the rabies virus as long as it is given before symptoms appear. This is done through a series of injections, starting right after the bite, and continuing for about 14 days afterward. This treatment can be very expensive, and most local healthcare offices do not carry the medication on hand because it is used so rarely.

In this case, the offending bat was humanely euthanized and our Environmental Health Division shipped it to the Ohio Department of Health lab for testing. We will know in a few days if the rabies virus is present. If it is not found, then the treatment process for the local young lady can be stopped.

In many cases, the health department can monitor a live animal’s health for a quarantine period to watch for symptoms of rabies, and avoid having to send animals in for testing at the state lab. This is how a majority of dog and cat bites are handled by our office.

The moral of this story: If something goes bump on your bedspread, look before you reach. And remember that every month our Environmental Health Division investigates dog, bat, raccoon and other bite exposures for potential rabies. This is just one of many important programs that your local health department provides to our community.

More information is available at www.highlandcountyhealth.org or by calling us at (937) 393-1941.