Bats have unfortunately developed a reputation as being one of the main transmitters of rabies, and this is one of the reasons that people fear them. Bats are a reservoir for rabies in BC – meaning they can carry the disease and pass it on without showing signs of the disease themselves. However, when normal populations of bats are sampled randomly, less than 0.5% of bats tested positive for rabies.
Rabies is a serious illness that can be fatal, however contracting rabies from a bat is extremely rare. Since 1970, five people have died from rabies in Canada, and four of these deaths followed exposure to bats. Bats should not be feared, but caution should be taken. Bats with rabies may appear sick and weak, and be more likely to be somewhere where people can come in contact – e.g. on the ground. People should beware of bats that act strangely, such as bats flying during the day, and NEVER pick up a sick or dead animal with bare hands. Use gloves or a shovel to gently move the animal away from human activity if possible, or call your local community bat project for advice. If a pet or a person does come in contact with a bat, we recommend immediately contacting a vet or a doctor, (depending on how many legs you walk on). The human vaccine is excellent, involving shots in the arm, and not in the stomach like older versions of the vaccine.
Another disease that can be transmitted by bats is histoplasmosis, a disease of the lungs. The fungal spores can be transmitted through bat guano, although the primary sources of the disease are from the droppings of starlings, pigeons and poultry. Luckily, there have been no documented cases of locally-acquired histoplasmosis in humans or animals in B.C., indicating that the risk of acquiring this disease in this province is quite low.
Most people who contract the disease have few to no symptoms or problems, but some people can develop serious respiratory conditions. To be safe, avoid breathing in dust in areas where there are bat droppings. If you do have to clean up bat guano, particularly in an enclosed space, spritzing the area with water to keep the dust down and wearing a mask is suggested. For more information on histoplasmosis see www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/diseases/histopla.html.