A significant number of Americans have seen an increase in hospital visits for exposure to rabies after close contact with wild, rabid animals in the last few years across the U.S. and in Fresno County.
With misconceptions and misinformation running rampant among COVID-19 deniers and a vaccine hesitant public, health officials say similar doubts are now being expressed in relation to the rabies virus.
“The global pandemic has raised many doubts and misconceptions about diseases and how they’re spread, and about vaccines in general,” said Steven Rhodes, the division manager of environmental health for the Fresno County Health Department.
Fresno County Rabies Positive Cases
According to Rhodes, since 2019, Fresno has had 12 animal cases of positive rabies tests with 11 of those being in bats and one from a cat.
The rabies virus is common in nature and affects 15% of the bat population in Fresno.
“I think I was surprised to learn that so many bats in our area have rabies because it’s not uncommon to see bats flying around at dusk and things like that,” said Fresno County interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra. “So definitely want to reinforce that people should never touch a bat or handle a bat, whether it’s dead or dying or struggling.”
Health officials say the best way to combat rabies is by making sure family pets — that includes cats, which are just as susceptible as dogs — are vaccinated against the virus
“Cat bites are not as common as dog bites in my clinical experience, but cats are sneaky and they’ll get out and find a dead bat,” said Vohra. “Unfortunately, we’ve had cats that tested positive for rabies in my brief tenure here at public health.”
To keep track of animal bites in the region, the health department offers an online portal the public can access to report potential exposure to the rabies virus.
Rabies Cases Across The Country
So far this year, 158 humans have been bitten by rabid animals, with cases reported in Oregon, Delaware and Massachusetts a Fresno environmental health official said.
A recent CDC report indicates that while cases of human rabies in the U.S. are quite rare, exposure to rabies is becoming much more common with data suggesting that a total of 55,000 Americans were treated for potential rabies exposure from the years 2017 to 2018 after close contact with a rabid animal – indicating that thousands of Americans are continually being treated each year for possible exposure.
This continued health risk has prompted health officials in Vermont to take preventative actions by using bait to capture and vaccinate much of the bat population in the region.
While exposure to the disease has increased, fatalities are much more common in other countries. A total of 59,000 people die globally from rabies infections every year.
The CDC states that rabies, while almost always fatal if untreated, can be cured in humans through quick action.
Proximity To A Rabid Animal Poses Danger
In most cases, based on the nature of the bite, victims are usually administered prompt treatment if they suspect the animal was carrying the rabies virus.
Being bitten by a rabid animal however, is not the only way that a human can be infected with the virus. People can also become infected without ever being bitten, says Rhodes.
“In fact, if you have it, they say if you are in the same room as a bat, you have to get rabies prophylaxis (preventative treatment),” said Vohra. “Because it’s that risky. I don’t know if that’s an exaggeration, but that’s really the clinical teaching is, you know, being that proximal to a bat is so high risk.”
In its report, the CDC states that contact with bats can happen unknowingly if a bat is present in a room with a young child, an impaired person, or someone who is asleep.
Bat bites are often small and overlooked, thus health officials advise seeking urgent care if they suspect exposure.
Fresno County Resources In Case Of Rabies Exposure
The county’s Rabies and Animal Control Program is located on the third floor of the Public Health Department on Fulton Street in downtown Fresno.
To report animal bites and potential rabies exposure, fill out their online form or call 559-600-3357.
For any other information on rabies prevention and exposure or vaccine information for pets, visit the Fresno County Department of Public Health website.