Human rabies cases are rare. The United States averages two human rabies deaths per year. Vaccine programs for pets and strict animal control laws can be credited for a steady decline in human rabies deaths. From time to time there are spikes in rabies positive cases in humans. 2021 was an above average year with five human rabies deaths in the United States.
Left untreated rabies is fatal. If a person is treated as soon as an exposure is known (BEFORE symptoms develop) the survival rate is 100%. There are only three cases of humans surviving rabies without treatment in the U.S.
Of the five cases in 2021, four were from exposure to rabies-positive bats. One case was a result of a dog bite a person received in another country. Human rabies deaths often occur when a person seeks treatment too late or does not realize they have been exposed. At least one death in 2021 was after a person refused post-exposure treatment.
Any mammal can contract and transmit rabies. In our state bats, skunks, and raccoons have a higher chance of carrying and transmitting the virus. We refer to these as rabies vector species. Other wild species like squirrels, mice, and opossum have a lower chance of carrying the disease and a RARE chance of transmitting the disease. NOTE: In the last 25 years South Carolina has had 2 opossum and 3 squirrels test positive for rabies. Neither were known to transmit the disease to humans. A deer tested positive in 2017.
Rabies can also infect domesticated and livestock species. Any livestock kept as a pet that has an approved rabies vaccine should be vaccinated. Cows, horses, and goats have tested positive. Cats are the leading carriers and transmitters for domesticated species in South Carolina.
Rabies is transmitted through direct contact with saliva or infected brain/nervous system tissue. Direct contact does not always mean a bite. Although it is rare, people can get rabies from non-bite exposures such as such as scratches or open wounds that are exposed to saliva or other infected tissue. In animals, nose to nose transmission and transmission via shared saliva at feed stations is possible.
Preventing exposure to rabies seems simple enough. Do not handle wildlife. Even wild babies can carry and transmit the virus. Do not pick up stray cats or dogs. Do not feed your pets outside where they could share their food stations with wild animals. There are also the freak accidents that happen. You could be outside, in the middle of your neighborhood and a fox might attack you. Or as with most exposures in our state, you could just be sleeping in your own bed and wake up to find a very innocent looking bat hanging from a light fixture.
Bats are beneficial to our environment. Without thinking it through, people will find a bat in their home or office and release it outdoors. The problem with releasing bats that were inside is you have no idea how long they were there. Bat bites are rarely felt, are not painful, and do not usually leave a mark. Most people compare bat bites to a mosquito bite. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control recommends testing all bats that are:
Found indoors in the living areas of a home.
Found in an area where children, persons of impaired mental capacity, or pets have been left unattended.
Any bats that have come into direct contact with a person or pet.
Raccoons are the leading rabies vector species in the nation, but almost all human rabies deaths are a result of a strain of rabies associated with bats. Rabies is a silent disease with very few outward symptoms. Most animals exhibit dumb rabies. They become docile and cuddly. We do not experience many cases of furious rabies, where the animal has the classic foaming at the mouth and violent behavior. The lack of visual symptoms is often the reason people do not report possible exposures. Another reason people do not want to report exposures is because testing requires an animal to be euthanized so the brain can be examined. We cannot stress enough -Yes, we are a wildlife rescue, but human safety is always our main priority when we receive calls about possible rabies exposures.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control monitors rabies exposure and testing in our state. CLICK HERE to learn more or to report a bite or possible rabies exposure.