Bats are the main cause of rare rabies deaths in the U.S.

Overseas contact with rabid canines comes in second place


RABID BITE  Over the last 80 years, wild animals such as bats have replaced dogs as a leading cause of rabies-related deaths in Americans. 

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In the United States, the landscape of rabies transmission has shifted over the last 70 years. 

Following a massive campaign to vaccinate dogs starting in 1947, rabies deaths linked to dog bites and scratches have dropped, and those from wild animals now carry a greater share of the blame. Since 1960, bats have caused 62, or roughly 70 percent, of the 89 deaths from rabies exposure that occurred in the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in a report released June 12. About two people die from rabies in the United States every year.

In 2015, the CDC noticed that bats were surpassing raccoons in animals testing positive for rabies. The agency also noticed an uptick in the number of mass bat exposures, when 10 or more people are exposed to a possibly rabid bat. This happens most often where bats are found living in homes, dorms or campgrounds. The vast majority of bats, about 94 percent, tested do not have rabies and the CDC estimates that less than 1 percent of bats overall are infected.

Overseas contact with rabid dogs is second in causing rabies deaths in Americans. People often think infected dogs act aggressively, lunging and barking and trying to attack people. But infected dogs can also be timid and still bite people, says Emily Pieracci, a veterinary epidemiologist at the CDC in Atlanta. “You can’t tell whether an animal has rabies just by looking at it.” 

People should try to stay away from bats, Pieracci says. A bat that doesn’t flee from humans may be rabid. “A normal, healthy bat will not allow you to touch it,” she says. 

In the wild, the disease infects coyotes, raccoons, skunks and foxes in addition to bats. Now, rabies control measures by the U.S. Department of Agriculture focus on vaccinating coyotes, foxes and raccoons. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated June 17, 2019, to provide more context about the incidence of rabies deaths in the United States and the percentage bats estimated to carry rabies, as well as to correct when widespread vaccination of dogs began.

Carolyn Wilke is a freelance science journalist based in Chicago and former staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Northwestern University.

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