A bat bite? What’s the worst that could happen? You get a nearly undetectable bite mark, eternal youth, and Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt battling for your affections. But a Charleston man under treatment after exposure to a rabid bat last month has shown there’s more to worry about than celebrities in poofy shirts.

Rabies is a disease that infects the nervous system, typically transferred through the bite of a rabid animal, but also through a scratch or saliva. Mandatory vaccines for hwouse pets has driven down incidents in dogs and cats to slim numbers, but it remains strong among wild animals. Rabies is typically found in raccoons and some types of bats and foxes, but can also be found in skunks, cows, horses, and others. In 2006, there were 6,943 cases of rabid animals in the United States and 180 cases in South Carolina, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Rabies kills about two people a year nationally, and most confirmed cases of rabies being transferred to humans has involved bat bites. Before you take a flamethrower to your attic, the CDC notes that most bats don’t have rabies. Bats account for a majority of rabies cases in states in the deep South and out west, but Charleston, regardless of its healthy bat population on the peninsula, has only had six confirmed rabid bats since 2002.

Those bats that have been rabid are typically already dead, says John Newland of Critter Control. When he’s driving bats out of a home, he’s more concerned about guano and the diseases that it can carry. Bats also benefit the region by eating some of our nasty insects, particularly mosquitoes, Newland says.

“They’re bad to have in your house, but they’re great to have in your neighborhood,” he says.

Rabid Charleston

Charleston has led South Carolina counties in identified cases of rabies in five of the last six years, sometimes by dramatic margins. Most cases are raccoons. The height was in 2005, when there were 64 cases of rabies in Charleston County, compared to 19 in second-place Anderson. For 2008, Charleston is among the state’s leading counties with a comparatively light nine cases. But, for the first time since 2004, it’s on pace with other counties.

The reason Charleston has been such a rabies hotspot in the past few years is hard to pin down, says Adam Myrick, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“It’s such a random thing,” he says.

One reason, experts say, is the growth in Charleston. Suburban neighborhoods have been built over woodland habitats, increasing the odds of interaction between humans and wild animals. The City of Charleston Animal Control receives about a call a day regarding raccoons, and state officials say there’s a strong population elsewhere, particularly on local islands.

But development doesn’t account for the fact that communities with similar construction aren’t seeing this surge. In 2007, when Charleston County saw 26 rabid animals, Beaufort County had zero and Horry County had two.

Complicating the issue in Charleston may be a raccoon’s familiarity with humans, says Anna Tarter, a regional spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources. As the human population grew, the raccoons in Charleston should have fled for safer woods in other regions or seen their numbers dwindle with the available habitat. Instead, they’ve found a way to live off of their new neighbors.

“So many individuals take the incentive to feed the wild animals, thinking they’re helping, but they’re really extending the animal’s suffering,” Tarter says. “And they’re spreading the disease.”

Another issue may be the large number of wildlife rehabilitation programs in Charleston. Once these animals are back in the wild, they’re less weary of humans and will creep into neighborhoods. Residents in other, more rural communities may also be taking matters into their own hands, instead of calling state or local animal control officials to get rid of potentially rabid animals — driving down official numbers.

Rabid Protection

There have been no rabies-related deaths in South Carolina for about 50 years. That’s due, in large part, to the aggressive medical treatment provided to anyone that has come in contact with a rabid animal. The ease of transmission and the fact that symptoms typically come within two weeks of death means people are treated even for limited exposure.

The universal piece of advice from the experts is to stay away from wild animals. Sometimes there are tell-tale signs, particularly for raccoons, says Marcus Grant, supervisor for Charleston’s Animal Control.

“We can usually tell when they’re walking around in a circle for no reason,” he says. “Or they’re trying to climb a tree and they can’t.”

But sometimes people can mistake the symptoms of rabies for some generic, treatable sickness. Earlier this summer, 24 people and 16 pets had to be treated for rabies after a Hilton Head Island family took in a baby raccoon they thought was sick, but turned out to be rabid.

“We know they’re cute and cuddly, but it’s really just best to leave them alone,” says Myrick.

Bats can sometimes be identified as rabid when they’re out during the day or if they can’t fly, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But erratic behavior is hard to recognize in an animal that already tends to fly, well, erratically, says Newland with Critter Control.

“The best thing to do is get out of the way,” he says.

That is, unless the bat is Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt.

The Charleston Animal Society is offering $5 rabies shots for pets from 8-10 a.m. on Sat., Sept. 6, at 2455 Remount Road. All pets must be leashed or confined in carriers. For more information, visit CharlestonAnimalSociety.org or call (843) 747-4849.