By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
On 5th August 2011, a bat flew through the cabin of a commercial airliner minutes after takeoff during an early morning flight from Wisconsin to Georgia. This potentially exposed the passengers and flight crew to rabies virus. Three days later, the Wisconsin Division of Public Health (WDPH) requested assistance from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct a rabies risk assessment for those on board and the ground crew.
In this week's CDC report public health officials detailed the case of a bat that flew in the cabin of a commercial flight last year. When the bat flew into the airplane lavatory, a passenger closed the door, trapping it, CDC veterinarian Danielle Buttke told Reuters. The pilots then returned to Madison and passengers disembarked. Because the crew members were never actually able to catch the bat, health officials couldn't determine whether the bat carried rabies.
Ultimately, the CDC was able to track down 45 of the 50 original passengers (who's ages ranged from 2 to 63) to find if any of them had any sort of physical contact with the bat -- none of them did. The CDC noted that any bats that are either active during the day (bats are nocturnal animals) or that are seen in places where they should not be should undergo rabies testing.
“This investigation illustrates the unique challenges public health officials face when possible exposures to zoonotic pathogens occur in mass transit settings, particularly during air travel,” the CDC researchers wrote in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published Thursday. “Passenger reservation manifests can be inconsistent and provide limited contact information, necessitating other methods of communication to contact known and unknown travelers, including social networks, e-mail, press releases, and travel agencies.”
While rabies itself is rare in the U.S., many of the cases are attributed to bats - the CDC reported that 15 of 21 rabies cases since 2001 are from bats. However, 6 percent of bats that were tested in 2010 for rabies actually carried the virus, according to the CDC. Rabies can be contracted via the saliva of an animal with the virus. Bats, foxes, raccoons, skunks and coyotes are the most common transmitters of rabies, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms of rabies including confusion, hallucinations, fear of water, too much saliva production, and/or partial paralysis almost always leads to death. Thus, receiving the shots to prevent the disease as soon as being bitten is important.