As the weather warms up, officials with the Interior Health Authority are urging the public to take precautions to reduce the risk of rabies.
While the chances of contracting the disease are low, it can have serious consequences.
“Once you notice the clinical symptoms, it’s almost universally fatal,” said Dr. Rob Parker, a medical health officer with Interior Health.
Rabies is a serious disease which affects the nervous system, but if it is treated early, it can almost always be eliminated, he added.
In British Columbia, rabies is spread from contact with bats. Between four and eight per cent of the bats which are tested after coming in contact with people are found to have the virus.
“Anyone who has come into contact with a bat should call the local public health unit or their doctor right away even if you can’t see bite marks or scratches,” said Jennifer Jeyes, communicable disease specialist with Interior Health.
“Bats have tiny sharp teeth and claws, so scratches or bites may not be visible but could still be there. People should not wait for symptoms to appear. Get checked out as soon as possible — early treatment is crucial to prevent the disease from progressing.”
Parker said the disease is not common in the province.
In the past 50 years, two people have died from rabies. In 1979, a man died following a bat bite which had occurred out of the province.
In 2001, another man died from rabies.
In addition, an unimmunized cat in the Maple Ridge area was infected with the virus several years ago.
In 2003, a family of five skunks in the Stanley Park area were found to be infected.
“We don’t have a huge risk,” he said.
Still, the rabies virus was offered to 39 people last year, following potential exposure to the virus.
Of the cases affecting British Columbians, one-third to one-half were contracted during international travel.
While bat-strain rabies is found in British Columbia and throughout North America, other strains of the disease can be found elsewhere, Parker said.
Canine-strain rabies, transferred from dogs, has not been observed in the province for many decades.
In Eastern Canada and the eastern United States, raccoons are rabies carriers, but this is not the case in Western Canada.
Skunk-strain rabies can also be found in some areas, but it has not been in Alberta or British Columbia for decades.
The Interior Health Authority offers the following suggestions to prevent rabies:
o Do not touch live or dead bats. Parents should tell their children not to play with or touch bats.
o Make your home or cabin bat proof. Keep doors and windows closed, make sure window screens don’t have any holes, and keep the attic area free of bats by keeping all vents properly screened and by closing off other openings.
o If you find a live bat in a room of your home, open the window and close interior doors until the bat leaves.
o Seek professional bat-control advice (from a pest control or wildlife specialist) if your home or workplace is inhabited by bats.
o Avoid locations or activities where bats are likely to be found (e.g., caves).
o If you have a pet dog, cat, or ferret, make sure they are vaccinated regularly against rabies. Pets that were born and raised in B.C. pose a very low risk of transmitting rabies to humans; however, vaccinating your pets will protect them from rabies.
If you have been bitten or scratched:
o Thoroughly wash the wounds with soap and water.
o Contact your local public health unit or family doctor immediately.
o Call a wildlife or pest control company to capture the bat. If trying to capture the bat yourself, avoid contact by wearing leather gloves, a hat, long sleeves, and pants.
o Safely contain the bat in a secure covered container to prevent others from being exposed. Keep the bat in a safe location until Public Health can arrange to pick it up and test it for rabies.
When traveling abroad:
o In B.C., bats carry the rabies virus and other animals are only rarely infected. In other parts of the world rabies can be carried by other species. Be aware of the risk of rabies in the country you are visiting.
o If you were bitten by an animal and started on the rabies vaccine, keep all documentation you were provided. It will need to be reviewed by Public Health when you return home.
o Note the type of clinic or hospital you visited. This information will be used by Public Health to determine if you received the same standard of protection that you would have received at home.