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Bat breaks lose on Atlanta-bound flight, prompting CDC rabies report

White-winged vampire bat pup
White-winged vampire bat pup AP Graphics Bank

(CBS News) On August 5, 2011, 50 passengers and three person flight crew on an Atlanta-bound flight were in for a shock, when an unexpected passenger joined them on board: A potentially rabid bat.

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A bat on a plane? Samuel L. Jackson jokes aside, the Centers for Disease Control took the case seriously, and released a new report on the incident in the April 13 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. According to the report, the bat flew from the rear of the plane several times shortly after takeoff, before being trapped in a lavatory.

Reuters reports the flight in question was a Delta Airlines plane that took off from Madison, Wis.

Once the bat broke loose, the pilot returned to Madison where the plane was met by a maintenance crew who sought to remove the wayward guest. The elusive bat thwarted the crew's attempts, escaping throw the cabin door - and eventually through the entire airport terminal, where it was seen exiting the building through automatic doors.

Without the bat being captured, its rabies status remained unknown. The crew searched the plane for more bats but couldn't find any so the flight resumed. Fifteen passengers re-boarded the flight while 35 chose alternate arrangements (Can you blame them?).

Three days following the incident, the Wisconsin Division of Public Health asked the CDC for help in performing a risk assessment to see if the passengers and in-flight and ground crew were exposed to rabies.

Rabies is a preventable but potentially deadly viral disease that's spread through the bite of an infected animal. The virus attacks the central nervous system, ultimately spreading the disease through the brain and causing death. Early symptoms are similar to other illnesses and include fever, headache and discomfort but as the disease progresses, specific symptoms such as agitation, insomnia, confusion, paralysis, hallucinations, hydrophobia (a fear of water), an increase in saliva and difficulty swallowing. Death typically occurs within days of those symptoms. There is a preventive rabies vaccine and also a "postexposure" vaccination for people who have bitten.

After obtaining the names of all the passengers, the CDC conducted interviews and found no one on the plane or in the ground crew had any physical contact with the bat or its saliva. The CDC also inspected the airport terminal, gates, and baggage handling areas looking for signs of bat droppings to test, but found no evidence.

"I would say there is no evidence (of rabies exposure)," CDC veterinarian Dr. Danielle Buttke told Reuters. But she said, "I don't think we can be certain." She commended everyone involved for remaining calm, since airports aren't exactly stress-free places to begin with.

According to the CDC, there have been a few bat sightings at the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, and the agency recommends preventive safety measures such as adding netting to cover crevices where bats might roost. No bat sightings have been reported since last summer's incident.

Rabies outbreaks in the U.S. are rare: There have been 42 reported cases of human rabies from 1995 to 2010, with only 21 reported cases over the past 10 years. Of those recent cases, 15 or - 71 percent - were caused by bats. Approximately 6 percent of bats captured for testing in 2010 were infected with rabies, the CDC says. More than 2.5 billion passengers fly commercial airlines every year.

The CDC has more on rabies.

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