Rabies fears after bat seen on Delta flight

The vampire bat
Pascual Soriano

ATLANTA — Health officials say a bat on a flight from Wisconsin to Atlanta last week has sparked a national search for passengers to protect them against possible rabies.

Officials don't know if the bat had rabies. It escaped. But they want to alert passengers of the risk just in case. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is trying to reach all 50 people who flew on Delta flight 5121, which departed from Madison, Wis., to Atlanta at 6:45 a.m. on Aug. 5.

If the animal was rabid, people could catch rabies from a bite or exposure to the bat's saliva.

CDC officials asked anyone on the flight to call 1-866-613-2683. The airline didn't retain the records for all the passengers.

The jet was in the air when the winged animal emerged and a passenger shot a video. Operators of the flight said it could have been a bird. But CDC says its rabies expert believes from the video that it was a bat.

The Centers for Disease Control issued this statement on the incident:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in collaboration with the Wisconsin Department of Health and associated airlines and airport authorities, is currently contacting persons who were on board or associated with Delta flight 5121 (Operated by Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) Dba Delta Connection). Officials are trying to determine if anyone came into contact with a bat found on board the plane shortly after takeoff. This flight departed early on the morning of August 5, 2011 from Madison, WI to Atlanta GA and was re-routed back to the Madison airport after the bat began flying through the cabin. Passengers were able to detain the bat in the airplane lavatory after the bat made several passes through the cabin. Fifteen passengers were re-boarded on another aircraft, with the remaining 35 re-scheduled for other flights. Airline personnel were unable to collect the bat.

Rabies is caused by a virus that can be passed from animals such as bats to humans through bites, scratches, or by getting infected bat saliva in a wound, eyes, nose, or mouth. The rabies status of the bat on this flight is unknown. Although the risk of rabies exposure is very low, CDC staff are contacting passengers and airline and airport personnel that may have had contact with the bat as a precaution to determine if they actually had direct contact with the bat. Individuals who were bitten, scratched, or may have gotten bat saliva in their eyes, nose, mouth, or open wounds should receive post-exposure prophylaxis (i.e., vaccination and antibodies) to prevent rabies infection in the event the bat was rabid. People cannot get rabies through contact with bat feces, urine, or through touching bat fur; however, the CDC advises against handling bats.

CDC has been able to contact 14 passengers on board the flight and is seeking contact with the approximately 36 remaining passengers. Any individuals who were aboard Delta flight 5121 (Operated by Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) Dba Delta Connection) on August 5, 2011 and have not yet been contacted by CDC should contact the agency immediately at 1-866-613-2683 to assess their risk of exposure. For more information, please visit www.cdc.gov/rabies or contact your local health department if you think you have been exposed to a rabid animal.