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Bat With Rabies Found on Prince of Wales Island, First in Eight Years

Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Last week, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services released a health advisory because of a bat that was found with rabies.

Biologists on the Prince of Wales Island trapped several Keen’s myotis bats.  One appeared to be behaving strangely, and after testing, was found to have rabies.  This is only the third case of bat rabies in the state of Alaska-- the first was in 1993 and the second in 2006.  There are over 1000 different species of bats worldwide and only six species live in Alaska. 

Information officer with the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Riley Woodford says compared to the lower 48, the bat population is very low in this state.

“Basically we’re at the northern edge of the ranges for all these bat species. And that Keen’s myotis that had rabies, Southeast Alaska is the northern range for those bats. Because they are so small they don’t really do the cold well, they do hibernate. So it’s believed that they are either leaving the state and hibernating down south and then migrating back up or maybe they find places to hibernate up here that we don’t know about.”

Epidemiologist for the Alaska Department of Health Louisa Castrodale , says despite the low numbers in Alaska, a bat with rabies is no small matter. 

“We really don’t know the extent of bat rabies in Southeast, we just assume given these three animals that they exist down there. We just wouldn’t want someone to handle a bat or be bitten or exposed to a bat and not bring that to someone’s medical attention. To see about that bat getting tested and whether that person needs follows up medication to prevent rabies.”

The problem with bats lies in the fact that they fly.  Being able to fly around makes it difficult for humans to trap them and it makes it easier for the bats to bite and possibly spread the rabies virus to other animals. 

However, Woodford says the animal in Alaska that has the highest rabies numbers is actually the fox.  He says the worry and focus among the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is preventing the spread of rabies from foxes to dogs. 

Castrodale says there are symptoms of rabies and if an animal is acting strangely, keep your distance.

“Rabies is a viral infection and it will affect the nervous system. The brain and the ability of an animal being able to move and live. In bats what you might see is an animal appearing in time of day that it might not normally, like during the day and then not able to fly or flopping on the ground. Just acting odd or unusual.”

The state of Alaska used to provide rabies post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, to health care providers and facilities.  PEP is the series of shots received after being exposed to rabies that prevents a person from developing the disease.  However, in January of this year, the Department of Health and Social Services changed its policy.  Now, hospitals either have to stock themselves up with the vaccine or be able to obtain it from a supplier in a reasonable time frame.  This measure is supposed to help save money for the state. 

The state of Alaska has only three reported cases of human rabies, the first dating back to 1914.