Most Americans fear bats because they believe that all bats carry rabies. But how rational is this fear?
Rabies is a virus transmitted to humans via bites from animals which are infected by the virus, aka “rabid” animals, such as raccoons, dogs, foxes, bats, and skunks. Left untreated, rabies will spread to the central nervous system, causing severe symptoms in humans like fear of water, violent movements, and hallucinations. After about a week, a rabies-infected human will die (1). Luckily, the disease can be cured if the patient undergoes a treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which is a vaccine administered immediately after the patient is bitten and the wound site is thoroughly washed with soap and water.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), contact with rabid dogs is actually the main source of rabies in humans worldwide (2). However, in the U.S., the most commonly reported rabid species is raccoons (3). This is closely followed by bats, which account for about 29.1% of all wildlife rabies cases in North America. A recent study conducted by the University of Calgary showed that the amount of wild bats which are infected by rabies is only about 1% (4). This is not to say that contact with bats is to be taken lightly, however. The Center for Disease Control recommends that if a human is exposed to a bat, the bat should be carefully collected and tested for rabies. If the bat tests positive for rabies, a PEP should be administered to anyone exposed.
While bats may be a little scary looking and while 1% of them are infected by rabies, humans should never kill bats. Today, 26 different bat species are present on the IUCN’s list of Critically Endangered species (5). This is due to a large range of factors like climate change, hunting, windmills, and wildlife diseases. Bats are known as reservoirs for the rabies virus since they are unaffected by the disease and show no symptoms; however, there is another wildlife disease which bats are hosts of, known as the White-nose Syndrome. This disease alone has been responsible for the deaths of over 5.7 million bats in North America (5).
So, is our fear of bats irrational? Not quite. In North America, bats are the second highest source of reported cases of rabies in humans. Though we must remember that only about 1% of bats carry the infectious disease and many bat species are critically endangered. So while they may be scary, bats still need to be appreciated and protected.