State health officials, faced with a limited supply of human rabies vaccine, on Thursday urged Capital Region residents to capture any bats found in their home that might have had contact with a human or pet.
The state Health Department was notified that there is an extremely low supply of the human rabies vaccine RabAvert available for use in the U.S. markets.
In a Wednesday memo to hospitals and local health departments, the DOH said that the drug company Novartis announced on Monday that it was “restricting the use of RabAvert, the human rabies vaccine, only to emergency situations.”
How to catch a bat
During a news conference on Thursday at the state Health Department’s Wadsworth Griffin Laboratory, no information was released about the supply levels.
But state Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines, who was present to demonstrate how to catch a bat, made reference to it when he said capturing the animal “allows the limited supply of human rabies vaccine to be [prioritized] to those people exposed to rabid animals.” If a bat can be captured, it can be tested and, if it is not rabid, no treatment of humans exposed to the bat is necessary.
Dr. Millicent Eidson, state public health veterinarian, said there are two rabies vaccines, RabAvert and Imovax.
“It’s our understanding from Centers for Disease Control there have been some issues with vaccine companies being able to make sufficient amounts of the vaccine. It appears to be related to previous problems of quality control issues and FDA inspections,” she said.
Because of shortages, the Rab-Avert will be released only if someone has started treatment with Imovax and has an allergic reaction. More of the RabAvert vaccine may be available by July, said Eidson.
Because of the limited supplies, health providers around the country are being asked to consult with health departments to determine if treatment is necessary, something that is already required by law in New York state.
The Centers for Disease Control is not calling it a shortage, said a Health Department spokeswoman, but prioritizing what groups should get it.
The memo from DOH said that it’s “unclear how long RabAvert will be in such limited supply; however, the CDC remains in close contact with both vaccine manufacturers to continue monitoring the supply of rabies vaccines.”
Meanwhile, New York state has seen a steady increase in the number of human rabies treatments following bat exposure. “Many of these treatments could have been avoided had the bat been captured and tested negative for rabies,” said Daines.
The natural tendency is to try to remove a bat from a home once it’s discovered by opening a window or door, but it’s better to capture the bat so it can be tested for rabies, health officials said.
Using a small freeze-dried brown bat, he pointed out the bat’s tiny sharp teeth the size of pinponts. The creature can inflict rabies without leaving a mark, said Daines. Quite often the person doesn’t even know he’s been bitten by a bat but as a precaution after exposure has to go through the treatments, which consists of five shots.
Each year more than 1,400 New Yorkers undergo rabies treatment because the bat they were exposed to was not caught for testing. About 3 percent, or one in 33 bats tested in New York state, have rabies, said Bob Rudd, director of rabies at the state’s Wadsworth Center Griffin Laboratory, where rabies testing is done.
If a bat flies into someone, it could be rabid — even if it looks healthy. Other signs of rabies include a bat that is active in the daylight, a bat unable to fly or a bat found in unusual places, like inside a house.
On Thursday Daines demonstrated the best way to catch a bat. Wearing gloves, he placed a coffee can — a wastebasket will also work — over the bat.
He slid a piece of cardboard under the bat to trap it in the container. Once the bat was inside the can, he taped the cover onto the can.
Once the bat is captured, it’s best to call the county or city health department for help in getting the bat tested at the state laboratory. The turnaround time for results is about 24 hours.
If the bat cannot be captured, contact the county or city health department to consider the possible need for rabies treatment.
Rabid bats were responsible for 38 of 41 human rabies cases in the nation since 1990. Three human rabies cases, all fatal, have been diagnosed in New York state since 1993.