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Janet Adair was enjoying a pre-dinner dip at her local swim club when she noticed a clump of leaves falling toward her. In one quick swoop, she raised her arm to keep the leaves from landing on her head and pushed them into the pool. That’s when she realized it wasn’t leaves she had just swatted, but a bat. A few minutes later, she noticed the small bite on her wrist.

“Literally, it was one second from when I first saw the clump of leaves falling to realizing there was a bat in the pool,” recalls the Moorestown resident, who was swimming with her 3-year-old daughter and husband. “I started yelling to the lifeguard that there was a bat in the pool, and he looked at me like I was crazy. A minute later, the lifeguard scooped it out with the pool skimmer. The bat then flew out of the skimmer and up into a nearby tree.

“After the adrenaline slowed down a minute later, I noticed a tiny hole, almost a scrape that was burning on my wrist,” she says. “I put an alcohol wipe on it, and it stung. Over the course of the next few minutes, I started to get a raised bump, which I know is a sign of infection. I thought, I’d know for certain if I had been bitten by a bat, wouldn’t I?

Not sure what to do next, Adair texted her neighbor, an emergency room doctor, who insisted she go to the emergency room.

“When I went to the emergency room they said it was definitely a bat bite,” she says. “The hospital and authorities treated it as a rabid bat because it was flying around during the day, and it came down and attacked a human. Both are signs that the bat was almost certain to have been rabid.”

Rabies cases are on the rise across the state. In fact, Burlington County health officials recently warned residents of an increase in rabies cases from stray animals. Since May, 14 animals in Burlington County — trapped raccoons, groundhogs, bats and foxes — have tested positive for rabies. In August, a rabid skunk was found in Cherry Hill, and two rabid raccoons and a rabid skunk were also found in Maple Shade. Statewide, there have been 142 cases of rabies in animals as of July 1, according to the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

“Most people think about rabies in dogs, because historically dogs were the number-one carrier of rabies way back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” says Colin Campbell, deputy state public health veterinarian. “Today, through a lot of the now-familiar health control measures, such as dog licensing, creating a vaccination for dogs, patrolling and training animal control officers, we’ve eradicated the type of rabies associated with dogs. But still, a sick dog could be carrying the virus.”

“There is no cure for rabies,” says Alfred Sacchetti, MD, chief of emergency services at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden. “If the animal can’t be located, you have to assume that it may be rabid, and you have to be treated for rabies. If you have the animal, and it’s a dog or a cat, you can watch it. Animal control can quarantine it, and if it shows no signs of rabies for ten days, you’re fine and you don’t have to sacrifice the animal.”

Classic signs of rabies in animals include bizarre behavior, excessive salivation and difficulty swallowing.  “If the dog’s behavior is bizarre, and it bit the person without being provoked, we will start treating it right away, knowing that we can stop it if the pet is watched and found to be okay,” says Sacchetti.

“If it’s a wild animal, they generally sacrifice it right away and do studies on the brain to see if it is affected with rabies,” he adds. “We treat a scratch the same as a bite, because so many animals lick their claws. Rabies is not like other infections. The virus is in the tissue where you were bit. It gets into a nerve and has to travel up the nerve into the spinal cord and up the spinal cord into the brain. The further away from the brain you’re bit, the longer it takes for you to get an infection.”

Treatment is a series of four injections of a vaccine given over two weeks, Campbell says. “At the time of the first vaccine, the patient gets additional human antibodies to give immediate protection to fight the disease.”

“The current treatment, when given correctly, has been 100-percent effective in preventing rabies infections,” says Campbell. “So even though it’s a very serious disease — most people who get an infection unfortunately do die — treatment is effective. Our job is to try to identify anybody at-risk to get them treated, even if it’s a very low risk.

“You can protect your family by vaccinating pets that can be a bridge between the rabies cases in wildlife and your yard and home,” warns Campbell. “Secondarily, be cautious of sick or abnormally active wildlife. If you do happen to be attacked, even if it’s a minor bite, seek medical care.”

“I am the anti-shot person,” Adair insists. “I went through natural childbirth three times to avoid shots, so for me to be the person who went through this is ironic. I feel that life is this wonderful experience and the fact that we do have vaccines and information and that my daughter wasn’t the one who was bitten – all of it makes me feel blessed.”

October 2012
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