The Barnstable Patriot – Rabies death prompts advice on response

by Symptom Advice on March 2, 2012

What to do if you’re bitten  

A recent case of rabies diagnosed in a Marstons Mills man and confirmed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to be the first human case contracted in the state since 1935 proved fatal last month. the reported cause of death was rabies encephalitis.

Kevin A. Galvin, 63, was hospitalized in critical condition after beginning to show symptoms in late December, about one month after being bitten by a small brown bat at his home.

Rabies is a neurological virus that causes death by interrupting commands from the brain to vital organs, including the diaphragm and heart. the cause of death may vary from abnormal heartbeat to inability to breathe normally, usually within a few days of the appearance of symptoms like headache, fever, acute pain, uncontrollable excitement, violent movements, depression, mania and hydrophobia.

Chatham Animal Control Officer Meg McDonough regularly responds to calls from concerned individuals and tests up to eight bats each year for rabies.

“I was just as surprised to hear about this rabies diagnosis as you,” McDonough said. “In my 19 years here, testing bats every year, I’ve never had a positive test result indicating that the animal had rabies.”

McDonough advises anyone who wakes up to discover a bat in their bedroom or who discovers a bat in the room of a child to capture the animal if possible and call to have it tested. the method of capture, however, is important. Contact with the animal must be avoided, yet the animal must be collected intact for testing.

“In many cases the bat is smacked with a tennis racquet, and what remains is not viable for examination,” McDonough said. “I recommend using a trash can and a piece of cardboard over the top, or you can simply throw a towel over the top of the bat or contain it in a room with towels under the door before calling animal control or a pest control company.”

Many times McDonough arrives on the scene, sometimes at 3 a.m., only to discover that the bat contained in a room has exited as mysteriously as it appeared.

“Talk to your physician in that case,” she advised. “the way the state looks at it is if the bat gets away or the brain can’t be looked at, the person who suspects exposure should get post-exposure vaccines. In any case I deal with, I tell people to consult with their own personal physician. It’s up to the person, his or her doctor and the state epidemiology lab. I don’t think rabies is as common in bats as we fear, but you always have to err on the side of caution.”

Only a handful of rabies cases are diagnosed in humans in the United States each year, most of which are the result of exposure to infected bats. since rabies was discovered in bats in Massachusetts in 1961, approximately 5 percent of bats tested by the Department of Public Health Hinton State Laboratory Institute test positive for rabies.

Raccoon rabies was discovered in Massachusetts in 1992. In the past decade, over 5,000 animals have tested positive for this strain of rabies, including bats, foxes, raccoons, skunks and woodchucks. Pets, especially cats, and other domestic animals may contract this strain of rabies, but only one case has been confirmed in a human.

Since 1994, the Cape Cod Oral Rabies Vaccine Program, conducted by the Cape Cod Rabies Task Force with support from the US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, has distributed rabies vaccine baits in an effort to reduce rabies infections in local wildlife. at first, the fishy-smelling baits were distributed only in areas alongside the Cape Cod Canal in an attempt to keep rabies off the Cape entirely. the baiting area expanded after the first case of raccoon rabies was found in Bourne in 2004, and by 2006 both rabies cases and rabies baiting expanded to towns Cape-wide. Baits are now distributed bi-annually throughout Cape Cod.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health advises individuals who believe they have been bitten by a bat or other animal to wash the wound with soap and water for ten minutes and call a physician to determine whether or not a treatment for rabies exposure is recommended.

Information about rabies is available at

This article first appeared in The Cape Cod Chronicle.

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