Public Health

Bat On A Plane Triggers Rabies Hunt

Is this the flight to Hartsfield?

Is this the flight to Hartsfield? Alexei Zaycev/iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption Alexei Zaycev/iStockphoto.com

In case you missed it last summer, a bat got loose in the cabin of a Delta flight bound for Atlanta from Madison, Wisc. For real. No Samuel L. Jackson movie sequel.

The whole incident sounds so dry in the description just published in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report:

"Shortly after takeoff, a bat flew from the rear of the aircraft through the cabin several times before being trapped in the lavatory. The pilots were notified, and the aircraft returned to the airport. All passengers disembarked to allow maintenance crew members to remove the bat from the aircraft. The bat avoided capture and flew out the cabin door, through the airport terminal, and was seen exiting the building through automatic doors."

Now, I'm cool with bats. Wish there were more of them, in fact, just not on airplanes. If I'd been on board this flight, I'd have tried to stow myself under the seat in front of me.

In this case, public health officials were worried that the bat might have had rabies and could have given it to the passengers and crew. Bats that are active during the day and in public places, like, say, an airplane cabin, are particularly suspicious.

In the past decade, 15 of the 21 human rabies infections caught in the U.S. were linked to rabies associated with bats.

Since the high-flying bat got away and couldn't be tested, the public health folks scrambled to track down the passengers fast. It turned out it wasn't so easy to do. The manifests weren't quite right and the investigators used the loaded weight of the aircraft to help figure out that 50 passengers were aboard when the bat got loose.

In the end, the investigators located all but five of the passengers. None of them had contact with the errant bat or its saliva (a big worry for rabies transmission).

So, other than keeping bats out of airplanes, what does the incident teach us?

The authors of the report wrote it underscores the need for public health workers to be ready for just about anything, anytime and anywhere.

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