A Salmon Arm family is warning others about the dangers of rabies, after their nine-year-old son was bitten by a bat confirmed to be infected with the potentially fatal virus.
Christian Dominico and her family, including her husband and two sons, were boating on Shuswap Lake on Sunday, Aug. 14 and stopped by Marble Point.
A bat came out of nowhere and hit the side of their boat, landing in the water.
“My tenderhearted nine-year-old picked it up to rescue it from the water, where he made it to shore and it then bit him on the palm of the hand. My son screamed and dropped it, and when it fell, it died,” says Dominico of her son Cole.
Thinking no one would believe the story, the family put the bat in a baggie to take home.
“Rabies didn’t really occur to us,” she said.
The family didn’t think much more about it until they returned home later that evening.
“We almost went to bed, but then my mom-instinct kicked it and we took him to Emergency. Once we said “bat,” we were rushed through pretty quick.”
An immediate health assessment and protocol was started and a series of immunizations were given to the young boy to prevent rabies from developing.
What the family didn’t realize, and what they hope to make other people aware, is that rabies is a fatal illness if ignored or untreated.
“We were all tired that night and didn’t really want to head down to emergency. We came really close to just letting it go. We are so thankful we didn’t. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened if we hadn’t gone,” says Dominico.
Interior Health’s public health services became involved and the bat was sent for testing. These tests confirmed the bat that bit Cole was positive for the rabies virus.
“In B.C. there is an extremely low risk of exposure or contact with rabies, but there is a particular concern with bats, as they are the primary carrier of the virus in this province,” says Dr. Moliehi Khaketla, a senior resident medical health officer with Interior Health. “The majority of bats do not have the virus, but about three to 10 per cent are found to have it in this province, so every year there are some cases. This year we’ve had a few bats sent for testing and one positive rabies test result.”
Khaketla notes rabies is a very serious illness.
“Early treatment is crucial, because we can give immunizations if it is very soon after exposure. But if people wait until they begin experiencing rabies symptoms it is usually too late. Most people do not survives rabies. It is almost always fatal.”
Khaketla says if anyone has come into physical contact with a bat, or is bitten, they should do the usual first aid procedures, wash with soap and water and then head for a hospital or call their doctor immediately.
“Early treatment is crucial.” she stresses.
Dominico is concerned that the general public might not be aware of how seriously an encounter with a bat or other animal should be treated.
“We are finding that almost everyone we talk with is completely unaware of rabies or how it is fatal,” Dominico says, noting Cole is now having to endure two weeks of painful shots. But they are thankful they took action rather than be faced with a far more tragic outcome.
“We just want to help make people aware. Kids are so inquisitive and bats are everywhere around here. We don’t want another family to go through this.”
Since the Dominico’s story was first published, some people have been critical of the family, saying they should have already had their children vaccinated against rabies.
It is important to note that rabies is not part of a regular childhood immunization program. Only people in higher risk groups, like veterinarians or wildlife conservation officers are vaccinated as a precaution. This vaccination is not done routinely for the general public, as it is a very rigorous and painful protocol and the risk factors to the public are generally low.
The public is advised to stay away from all bats as much as possible because it is impossible to tell whether a bat could be infected.
Khaketla says some of the warning signs of a rabid bat are seeing it during the daytime — as in this particular case – or noticing it is weak or having difficulty flying, but infected bats can also behave completely normally.
“We take all bat encounters very seriously. People should avoid contact with these animals, dead or alive, and should pass that information on to their children. It is also important to try and bat proof your home or cabin. If you encounter a bat in your house, try to avoid capturing it yourself to protect against contact,” says Khaketla.
The doctor notes bats are a protected and valuable species in the eco-system, but in B.C. they also have the highest risk of rabies of any species.
“In B.C. it is bats, that’s why we take every bat interaction very seriously. In other parts of the country, it may be different, Skunks, raccoons can also be carriers,” Khaketla says.
Additional information is available on the Interior Health website at www.interiorhealth.ca