HEALTHY LIVING
04/12/2012 04:24 pm ET

Bat On A Plane: CDC Analyzes Rabies Exposure Risks After 2011 Incident

So much for snakes on a plane. What we should really be aware of are bats on a plane.

In this week's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health officials detailed the case of a bat that flew in the cabin of a commercial flight last year:

On August 5, 2011, a bat flew through the cabin of a commercial airliner minutes after takeoff during an early morning flight from Wisconsin to Georgia, potentially exposing the passengers and flight crew to rabies virus. Three days later, the Wisconsin Division of Public Health (WDPH) requested assistance from CDC to conduct a rabies risk assessment for the passengers, flight crew, and ground crew members associated with the flight.

After flying through the cabin of the plane, the bat was finally trapped in the airplane bathroom. But when crew members went to try to catch it, the bat flew out of the plane and into the airport terminal, and "was seen exiting the building through automatic doors," according to the CDC report.

(You really can't make this stuff up.)

Since the crew members were never actually able to catch the bat, health officials couldn't determine whether the bat carried rabies.

Because of the bat, the plane had to go back to the airport, where only 15 of the 50 original passengers continued on the flight to their destination. Ultimately, the CDC was able to track down 45 of the 50 original passengers (who's ages ranged from 2 to 63) to find if any of them had any sort of physical contact with the bat -- none of them did.

The CDC noted that any bats that are either active during the day (bats are nocturnal animals) or that are seen in places where they should not be (like, say, airplane cabins) should undergo rabies testing.

"This investigation illustrates the unique challenges public health officials face when possible exposures to zoonotic pathogens occur in mass transit settings, particularly during air travel," the CDC researchers wrote in the report. "Passenger reservation manifests can be inconsistent and provide limited contact information, necessitating other methods of communication to contact known and unknown travelers, including social networks, e-mail, press releases, and travel agencies."

While rabies itself is rare in the U.S., many of the cases are attributed to bats -- the CDC reported that 15 of 21 rabies cases since 2001 are from bats. However, 6 percent of bats that were tested in 2010 for rabies actually carried the virus, according to the CDC.

Rabies can be contracted via the saliva of an animal with the virus (which is why rabies is such a risk if you're bitten by a wild animal). Bats, foxes, raccoons, skunks and coyotes are the most common transmitters of rabies, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Once a person starts to show rabies symptoms -- which include confusion, hallucinations, fear of water, too much saliva production, and/or partial paralysis -- death is very likely, according to the Mayo Clinic. That's why as soon as a person is bit by an animal, it's important for he or she to go see a doctor to test for the virus and receive shots to keep the virus from infecting your body.

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