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State health officials raise awareness about rabies prevention steps

MADISON – As temperatures drop and bats and other animals seek shelter indoors, state health officials are encouraging people to take steps to minimize potential exposure to rabies. Wisconsin is home to at least eight bat species, and some make their homes in man-made structures, increasing the chance for accidental exposure to people, and between bats and other animals.

“We encourage Wisconsin residents to learn ways to avoid rabies virus infection,” said Dr. Henry Anderson, State Health Officer. “It may seem an unlikely possibility, but even people with very minor exposures to bats have contracted rabies.”

People who have had any possibility of physical contact with a bat, even without a known bite, should have the animal safely captured and held until a public health official or a physician can be consulted, Anderson said. This way, health officials can determine if a bat is infected and whether the individuals exposed to them require rabies vaccinations. About 3 to 4 percent of bats tested by the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene are infected with the rabies virus. Skunks also spread the virus, and domestic animals in urban and rural areas can become infected from exposure to these wild animals.

There have been three cases of human rabies in Wisconsin since 2000; between 2006 and 2010, 123 wild animals and two domestic pets were diagnosed with rabies. Worldwide, some 55,000 people die from rabies virus infection annually, mainly in Asia and Africa. With appropriate medical care, rabies is a 100 percent preventable human disease.

In addition to avoiding contact with bats, experts recommend the following measures to minimize exposure to rabies:

• Vaccinate pet dogs, cats, ferrets and livestock against rabies.

• Enforce leash laws and contact local associations if help is needed to shelter and find homes for stray dogs and cats.

• Stay away from all wild animals, especially those acting abnormally.

• Teach children not to approach any unfamiliar animals.

• Do not keep exotic or wild animals as pets.

• Keep screens in good repair and close any small opening bats could enter.

• Individuals traveling to developing countries where rabies is highly prevalent, or who are at ongoing risk of possible rabies exposure, such as veterinarians and animal control officers, should ask their doctor about receiving pre-exposure rabies vaccinations.

To learn more about rabies:

For videos that teach children to avoid exposure to bats: