A 21-year-old man who died from rabies after coming into contact with an infected bat on Vancouver Island this spring ran into the nocturnal mammal in an “unusual” daytime encounter, health officials said Tuesday.
The man, whose identity has not been released, was spending time outdoors in mid-May when the bat “essentially ran into his hand,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Henry said the man may not have realized the gravity of the collision.
“As is often the case, when you come in contact with a bat, you may not actually see a scratch or bite,” Henry said Tuesday. “Clearly, in this case, there was at least a small puncture wound that led to the infection.”
The man developed symptoms of rabies six weeks later and died at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver on Saturday.
Henry declined to give further details about the exposure, including a more precise location of the encounter and species of bat.
She also declined to say whether the man sought medical attention immediately after the encounter, or before symptoms arose.
3rd recorded death in B.C. since 1924
Henry stressed it is extremely rare for someone to die from rabies in B.C.
This week’s death marked the second rabies-related fatality in the province since Health Canada began tracking reports of the disease in 1924. The first was in 2003.
Another man died from rabies in B.C. in 1985, but his death is considered to be an Alberta rabies-related fatality because the virus was contracted in that province.
Bats are the only carrier and reservoir of rabies in B.C. — the latter term meaning they can carry and pass on the virus without showing symptoms.
Rabies can be spread through a microscopic bite or a scratch but also through contact with mucous membranes — like one’s mouth, nose, and eyelids — via saliva.
“Any contact with a bat at all is risky,” said Henry.
“But as we say, most bats go about their life without coming into contact with humans.”
What to do after a brush with a bat
Anyone who encounters a bat in B.C. should wash any contact area thoroughly with soap and seek medical attention for a risk assessment.
The post-exposure rabies vaccine, Henry said, is a “very effective” series of four shots that build upon a person’s existing immune system to help fight off the virus before illness can begin.
Henry said people should see a medical professional even if symptoms don’t appear, as the virus can incubate for months or years before an infected person starts to feel sick.
Anyone whose pets have come into contact with a bat should take the animal to a veterinarian.
Bats in B.C.
There are 16 species of bats living in B.C., nine of which are found on Vancouver Island. Those species are known to roost in buildings, mines, cliffs, caves, bat houses, rock piles and trees — specifically cottonwoods.
Danielle Dagenais, a bat biologist with the B.C. Community Bat Program, said bats with rabies may seem especially sick or weak. People should be especially wary of bats behaving strangely, including ones flying around during the day.
Dagenais said a bat should never be handled with bare hands.
“A lot of the bats that are living in people’s homes are very, very small animals. They have very, very small teeth and you might not notice that you have been bitten or scratched,” the biologist said. “It’s very, very important people wear gloves.”
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control said around 13 per cent of bats tested are positive for rabies, though Dagenais said the actual rate is likely lower considering the centre only tests a portion of bats in the province.
Elsewhere in Canada, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks can carry the rabies virus. Dogs are carriers in some countries, but that has been eliminated in Canada thanks to vaccination programs.
The World Health Organization said 95 per cent of the world’s annual rabies fatalities happen in Africa and Asia.