NWT officials vaccinated a handful of Fort Smith students and adults and sent a bat for rabies testing after a "rare" exposure at a school.
Seven people from Joseph Burr Tyrrell Elementary School were exposed to a dead bat at the school's culture activity area last Friday. Deputy chief public health officer Andy Delli Pizzi said the people involved touched the bat before burying it.
It is not yet clear how many of those affected were students. Delli Pizzi said detailed information would not be shared in case someone involved could be identified.
The risk of contracting rabies from a dead bat is low and the measures being taken are precautionary, officials said.
Public health officers were made aware of the event on Monday. By Tuesday, vaccines were flown in and given to the seven people who handled the bat.
Those people received a "post-exposure prophylaxis" – a vaccine given to people who may have been bitten, scratched, or otherwise exposed to an animal potentially carrying rabies.
So far the seven people have been given the first part of the treatment, which is an active vaccine. Due to a Canada-wide shortage, the second part of the treatment – pooled antibodies – has only been given to some of those affected. Delli Pizzi said the remaining individuals would receive the second treatment shortly.
Delli Pizzi told Cabin Radio there is a shortage of the vaccine across Canada, following a July incident in BC in which a man died of rabies weeks after a bat "ran into" his hand.
Delli Pizzi said the vaccine is 100-percent effective and can be delivered for a window of time after initial exposure while remaining effective, though the exact length of that window was not specified.
"Typically [the infection] takes many weeks to develop. So there is a window for providing the post-exposure prophylaxis and national guidelines even allow for it," he said.
Risk 'relatively low'
Rabies is a viral infection carried by mammals, which can include domestic cats and dogs, farm animals, and wild animals – including bats.
When transferred to humans, the virus attacks the central nervous system and brain. It is almost always fatal once clinical symptoms emerge. The vast majority of human rabies cases are in Africa and Asia.
The virus is spread by humans coming into contact with an infected animal's saliva or fluids of the brain and nervous system. The most common means of infection is being bitten by an infected animal, Delli Pizzi said. Rabies can also spread if a rabid animal licks a person's open skin or eyes, nose or mouth, although this type of transmission is rare.
The Government of Canada states other types of contact, "like petting a rabid animal or contact with their blood, urine, or feces," does not put you at risk.
Delli Pizzi said additional precautions are taken with anyone in the NWT who has come into contact with a bat, due to their "very tiny teeth."
"Sometimes the teeth might penetrate skin," he said. "It might be barely perceptible to the person so it can produce a scratch or a bite mark, but sometimes it doesn't. So that's why we consider anyone directly touching a bat as an exposure."
Delli Pizzi emphasized the risk of contracting rabies from a bat is very low in the NWT.
Wildlife biologist and bat expert Jesika Reimer agrees the risk of rabies transmission is low, especially as the bat was deceased. Fewer than one percent of bats across North America carry rabies, she added.
"It's a live virus that doesn't move for very long. So unless they were picking up the bat and putting its teeth into their skin, sharing bodily fluids with the bat, the chances that they're going to contract anything from that, I would say, are relatively low," said Reimer.
There have so far been no human rabies cases reported in the NWT.
"Bats are known to harbour the rabies virus. So there certainly is risk," Delli Pizzi said. "But we've not had any individuals become sick with rabies in NWT. And from all the information that I've looked at, we've not documented a bat with rabies in the NWT in the last 20 or so years."
According to data from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency dating back 10 years, there hasn't been a positive rabies result from a bat in the NWT.
In the past five years, animals with confirmed cases of rabies in the territory have been five arctic foxes, four red foxes, one dog, and one raccoon.
The bat in this case has been sent to a lab for testing.
Pam Walsh, principal of Joseph Burr Tyrell elementary school, stated via Facebook that the school is reviewing safety precautions when it comes to interacting with wildlife.
"We strive to include authentic cultural experiences as an integral part of our school programs, and in doing so we understand there are inherent risks," Walsh wrote.
Anyone who comes into contact with a sick or dead animal should "respect that animal" and call the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. If they are bitten by an animal or come in contact with a bat, DelliPizzi urges people to turn to local healthcare providers.