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Rabies

...a valuable lesson about rabies...

T

here is a story in the news that a man is in an Albertan hospital waiting to die. There are probably hundreds of people in hospitals waiting to die and it's not news, but for this man, they won't disclose his name, it is news because he is dying of rabies.

As a child growing up in rural Ontario, people talked about rabies. I remember one instance where a dog at a cousin's farm was quarantined to determine if he had rabies and I was in no circumstance to go near the abandoned chick coup where he was held and I didn't.

I also remember horror stories about people who got rabies. They had to spend weeks in hospital getting injections forty times a day with needles as long as my leg and as thick as pretzels.

The treatment seemed horrifying but never once did anyone explain that a bite from a rabid animal (e.g., a bat, fox, skunk) would lead to certain death without medical treatment.

Now, years later, I have a better understanding of the truth, but what's the chance of getting bit? It's all media hype and exaggeration, right?

It has my attention because I have had close encounters with bats on numerous occasions including one time where when I recall it, it sends shivers down my body to think about it.

The big brown bat is native to large regions of North America including much of southern Ontario where I live. They dart through the air at dusk eating insects flying faster than a swallow. In the winter time they hibernate. And at times, they get into my house.

A bat flying around outside or even inside doesn’t scare me because I know they won't go near me. It may appear they are flying straight for my head, but they dart and dash before doing so. At such times, I prop open the doors, stay calm and wait till I see them fly out. They will eventually.

Nope, the scariest moments aren't the bats flying around inside, but the moment I picked up and twirled my jacket to put it. I heard the squeak of a bat as it fell to the floor. It laid on the carpet with it wings spread out as wide as an open book with sharp white teeth. I bolted with such a start that I was surprised I acted as if I were in a screw-ball comedy.

It was roosting inside my jacket as it hanged in the hallway.

The initial start was comical in hindsight and it was able to calm down in a minute, but it's, later reading and learning about the what-ifs, that make me shiver.

At the time, I wasn't thinking about rabies because I didn't know what I know now. I remember not wanting to get bite and I'm pretty sure I didn't, but I had been sleeping prior to that. What happened while I was sleeping? I hope the answer is: no contact with this bat, but I can't be sure.

Once calmed down, I found a pair of leather gloves, ones that come up halfway on my forearms and returned to the bat. It was still lying on the carpet, it's wings spread out, it's pointy teeth showing, but lethargic.

I picked the bat up, walked outside and placed it on the branch of a tree. I checked back a bit later and found it clinging to the bricks on the side of the house. I suppose it wanted to go back to sleep.

It was a story in the last two years that got me thinking about the what-ifs. A mother found a bat in her house in suburban Thornhill. Her infant was asleep in the nursery. The bat went to a lab to determine if it was rabid and the infant went to the hospital for treatment (i.e., shots) because it couldn't be determined if the child was bitten or otherwise infected. They started treatment because you can't wait as this man in Alberta is finding out much too late.

Posted 2007/03/05 at 06h16ET in Nature.

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