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Bats to blame for most rabies deaths nationwide

A bat flies through the sky.

July 11, 2019—When someone dies from rabies in the U.S., a bat is probably to blame, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It found that bats cause 7 out of 10 rabies deaths nationwide. That's an unexpectedly high number—bats make up only one-third of the 5,000 rabid animals reported every year in this country.

Why so high a number? One explanation is that bat bites are tiny and easy to miss. There's likely also a lack of awareness about the rabies threat bats pose, CDC warns. As a result, even those who notice a bite or a scratch may not seek lifesaving treatment.

The good news: Rabies in the U.S. is rare. But it kills about 59,000 people yearly worldwide, mostly from dog bites.

Rabies is also 100% preventable, even if you're exposed to the virus. But you need to get treatment—a series of shots—quickly, before symptoms start. Otherwise, it's nearly always fatal.

Changing face of rabies

The report looked at rabies trends in the U.S. over 80 years, from 1938 to 2018. It found that before 1960, dog bites were the No.1 cause of rabies.

But then rabies in other animals—especially bats—became the main danger for people because of widespread rabies vaccinations in dogs and leash laws.

Between 1960 and 2018, 125 people in the U.S. contracted rabies. Of them, 28% were bitten by rabid dogs while traveling abroad. Of those who got rabies here, 70% were infected by bats.

Other common carriers of rabies in the U.S include raccoons, foxes and skunks. Squirrels and opossums rarely spread rabies, though many people think they do.

Stay safe

To protect yourself from rabies, CDC advises these precautions:

  • Stay away from wildlife, especially bats.
  • Wash animal bites and scratches immediately with soap and water.
  • If you are bitten or scratched by an animal that may carry rabies, get medical help immediately.
  • If you happen to wake and see a bat in your room, assume you might have been exposed to rabies—and tell a doctor quickly.
  • Get your pets vaccinated. Dogs and cats can get rabies if bitten by another animal with rabies.
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