Global Warming. Obama’s socialist agenda. The swine flu. Internet sex predators. Anti-gay politicians and ministers. Meth mouth. Arthur Ravenel. You can try to scare me with these things, but you won’t succeed. They don’t frighten me.
However, if you want to freak me the frak out, just mention rabies. That is my greatest, and most irrational, fear.
And it’s been like this since childhood.
The cat that visits every house in the neighborhood, you know the one that everybody loves and everybody feeds. That lost dog wandering down the road, the one that looks so frightened and sad as it tries to find its way back home. The stumbling bum begging for change so he can buy another bottle of rotgut. I avoid them all. Why? In the case of the dog and the cat, they might be rabid. As for the guy, he might be a zombie, which readers of World War Z know is a person who’s infected with African rabies.
I know. I know. It’s irrational. But I can’t help myself.
Which is why whenever rabies pops up in the news, believe you me, I pay attention.
It’s also why I hate it whenever a newspaper or TV news team runs a report on rabies that serves only to inspire fear, not to inform.
And almost every single time, the report centers on bats — you know, those evil, horrible, rabid rodents who will attack you in your sleep, who will divebomb and bite you as you stroll the quiet, suburban streets at night, and who will hide behind the bushes waiting for the chance to sinks their teeny tiny fangs into your flesh and then disappear, leaving behind no trace that it was ever there. There will be no pain, no mark, and no bat in sight.
Which bring us to a report from Channel 2 WCBD that ran this week.
Frankly speaking, it was piece of fear-mongering guano.
The report was seeming inspired by a message from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control warning folks in Charleston County about the dangers of handling bats following three reported incidences involving possible rabies exposures. But instead of offering a sober warning, it went for silly sensationalism. The report began like this:
We have a warning tonight, one you probably haven’t heard before, but you need to be on the lookout for bats in your area.
The implication, of course, is that not only are these bats are out to get us, but that they’ve somehow descended on Charleston like a gang of Hell’s Angels hellbent on terrorizing the populace. It’s absurd. (The story continues after the video below.)
What’s left out of the report is any sort of context about how the people involved in these three incidents — nine of whom had to be treated for rabies exposure — came in contact with “rabid” bats in the first place. This is important, because the implication is that these folks were attacked by bats. That’s not the case.
According to Linda Pranger at DHEC, in two of the cases, individuals found bats flying their homes.
In one, the bat was caught and released. In the other, the bat was left to fly for the day, but by the end of the day was found dead. The bat was then thrown away.
In the third case, a bat was found in the house and the resident went to pick it up with heavy gloves but a cat grabbed it up and ran away with it.
In all three cases, no bat was taken in to be tested for rabies, and in no case was anyone actually reported to have been bitten by a bat.
Which brings us to the currently popular myth about bats and rabies making the rounds (and which the WCBD report helps spread): Bats routinely bite people without anyone realizing it.
According to Dianne Odegard, information specialist for the Austin-based Bat Conservation International, this is, more or less, rubbish. Odegard says:
The information that is out there about people being bit without knowing it, I honestly find usually and this is generally unlikely that one would not be aware of the bite.
I speak from the experience of being bit by a lot of bats because I handle bats, I take care of bats, I’m a wildlife rehabilitator, and I’ve never not felt a bat bite. They hurt.
It doesn’t feel like a mosquito bite in my opinion. It feels like a needle jab.
Odegard says that when it comes to individuals experiencing encounters with a bat and who do not report being bitten or scratched, only those who are mentally impaired, under the influence of alcohol and drugs, or a small child and found alone in a room with a bat should be treated. All other parties should be aware of having been bit.
That said, Odegard says that bat bites may not leave a noticeable mark:
It’s absolutely true that it’s difficult and sometime absolutely impossible to see the marks from a bat bite.
You can be bit and hurt terribly and you can look and it’ll be maybe red, or maybe not, and you can look and you can barely, barely see any marks, especially after an hour goes by because they have very small, sharp teeth.
She adds that rabid bats behave quite differently from rabid dogs and cats who are known to attack humans and other animals:
People who are bit by a bat are almost always bit by trying to pick up a bat that’s on the ground…
It’s possible that a bat could fly into someone and bite them, but generally, bats tend to have the type of rabies that you might call ‘dumb’ rabies, instead of ‘furious’ rabies. They tend withdraw from the company of other bats. They would not want to be around people. They are not aggressive usually, but that’s not always either.
The Bat Conservation spokesperson also points out that under two percent of all bats in the wild are rabid.
Odegard says it’s important to clear up another common misconception: Rabies shots are not given in the stomach, and they aren’t particularly painful.
However, if someone is bitten by a rabid animal — bat or otherwise — they must get treated or, well, they’ll die. Rabies is 100 percent fatal. (OK that is if you ignore the case of Jeanna Giese, the only know rabies survivor.)
Unfortunately, this is a fact that Channel 2 gets quite wrong. While the news outlet reports that if you are bitten by a rabid bat, you will have to get shots, it doesn’t note that rabies is fatal, opting to say that it “can kill you.”
Even worse, Channel 2 lets readers know about the symptoms of rabies, just so that they can know when they’re having a case of the rabies and they need to go seek treatment.
Here’s what they say:
Of course, there’s a problem here. If you are having rabies symptoms, it’s too late. You’re a goner. All that’s left is the waiting, hours and hours of excruciating pain and delirium.
So, if you’re bit, get treated. If you simply see a bat or find one in your house, don’t sweat it so much. You should know if you’ve gotten bit.