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Bat caught in Southeast Alaska tests positive for rabies

Tegan Hanlon
A Keen's myotis bat captured in Juneau in 2011. Another bat of the same species was found on Prince of Wales Island in 2014 and discovered to be infected with rabies -- just the third such case in Alaska since 1971. USFS

A bat in Southeast Alaska has tested positive for rabies, the third time since 1971 that Alaska scientists have confirmed the virus in the flying mammal.

Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service trapped the infected Keen’s myotis bat on Prince of Wales Island last week as part of an ongoing study of an animal that inhabits much of the state but that researchers know little about.

On Thursday night, the team draped a net near the banks of the Harris River in hopes of entangling bats that they would then leash and “fly like kites” in efforts to record and collect species-specific echolocation calls, said Karen Blejwas, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Game.

They caught six bats, though one appeared more sickly and aggressive than the others. “It had weepy eyes,” Blejwas said.

All bats snarled in the netting typically try to nip the biologists, she said.

“You can usually just blow a puff of air in its face and it lets go, but this one clamped down and it didn’t really want to let go.”

They euthanized the brown, silky-haired bat and sent it to the Alaska State Virology Laboratory, where test results pointed to rabies as the cause of its odd behavior.

Blejwas said the biologists do not know to what extent rabies has spread through Alaska’s six species of bats. She asked anyone who finds a dead bat to contact the Department of Fish and Game

The state's only other cases of bat rabies also occurred in Southeast Alaska. A Keen’s myotis bat from Prince of Wales Island tested positive in 2006, as did a little brown bat found in Tongass National Forest near Ketchikan in 1993.

Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said the state has never recorded an incidence of transmission of rabies from a bat to humans.

There have been only three known human cases of rabies in Alaska, all dating back decades. In 1914, a sled dog attacked a man in Candle, a former mining camp in the Northwest Arctic Borough. The other two cases resulted from wolf maulings -- one in 1942 east of Noorvik and the other in 1943 near Wainwright, according to the 2014 Alaska Rabies Prevention and Control Manual.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that rabies most frequently spreads through bites and scratches from an infected mammal. The virus infiltrates the muscle and moves to the brain by way of the nerves.

Initial symptoms in humans include weakness, fever or headache. The symptoms progress to anxiety and confusion and may escalate to hallucinations, delirium and insomnia. On average, two to three people die in the United States each year from the virus, the CDC said.

Health officials urged anyone who believes they may have been bitten or scratched by a bat or other infected mammal to contact a health provider immediately to be evaluated for a rabies shot, Castrodale said.

On Jan. 1, the state stopped supplying the shot for free, citing a tight budget.

Contact Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com.