Lord Fairfax Health District Warns Residents of Rabies Risk in Bats

December 5, 2019

Media Contact: Risk Communications Manager Lorrie Andrew-Spear – 703-530-2627

Health Department Offers Tips to Stay Safe

(Winchester, Va.) — On several occasions starting on November 24, 2019, residents of a rural property in Warren County encountered bats inside their house.  Since that time, three of these bats were captured and two of them tested positive for the rabies virus.

“Any physical encounter with a bat—a bite, scratch, or lick, a collision with a flying bat, or even finding a bat in a room with a sleeping person—should be considered a rabies exposure,” stated Lord Fairfax Health District Director Dr. Colin Greene, “and anyone so exposed should seek medical attention immediately.”

Rabies is a virus that causes a fatal brain infection in mammals, including humans.  Once symptoms begin, death follows in nearly all cases, but a series of shots given soon after a person is exposed can prevent the disease from occurring.  Rabies virus is spread through the saliva of an animal that is actively sick with the disease, transmitted through a bite or scratch, or a lick on broken skin or mucous membranes.  Unlike other common sources of rabies—raccoons, foxes, skunks, feral cats and the occasional ground hog—bats have a much higher level of mobility through flight, and their very small mouths make it possible for a sleeping person to be unaware of having been bitten.  Bats also present a rabies risk over a wide area, in every state except Hawaii.

Bats are a part of the natural environment and offer many benefits, including insect control.  Only a very small percentage of bats carry rabies at any one time, but it is not possible to tell by looking whether a bat has rabies, and bats in unusual places, such as inside a dwelling or outside in the daytime, are more likely to be affected.  Once again, any physical contact between a human and a wild bat, or a bat present in a room with a sleeping person, is a potential rabies exposure.  Affected persons should be seen by a healthcare provider right away.

The health department further advises: 

  • Never approach or touch wild animals, especially any raccoon, fox, skunk or bat, especially if it is behaving oddly or if it is seen in the daylight.
  • If you find a bat in a room where a human has been sleeping, that person must be seen by a medical professional immediately.
  • If you have bats in your attic or other area where you may physically encounter them, strongly consider having them removed by a professional.
  • Avoid stray cats and dogs. Feral or unknown cats and dogs may also carry rabies. Report bites or scratches from these animals to your physician or the health department.
  • Vaccinate all cats, dogs and ferrets against rabies (even if they don’t go outdoors) and keep their shots up to date. Vaccinate working barn cats as well, for their protection and yours.
  • Do not feed wild animals or stray cats or dogs.  Eliminate outdoor food sources around the home.
  • Keep pets confined to your property or walk them on a leash.
  • If one of your domestic animals is bitten or otherwise interacts with a wild mammal, notify the local health department and animal control officer at once, and have the animal seen by a veterinarian.

If you are bitten, scratched, or licked by any of these animals, seek medical attention immediately. Rabies is fatal to both animals and humans once symptoms begin, but it can be prevented in humans if they receive vaccine and medication soon after exposure.

Finally, if in doubt, or if you have a question, call your local health department, or the Frederick/Winchester office at 540-722-3480.

Additional information on rabies is available from the Virginia Department of Health at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/environmental-epidemiology/rabies-control/.

The Lord Fairfax Health District serves residents in the city of Winchester and Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties. For more information, visit www.vdh.virginia.gov/lord-fairfax/.