A man has died and more than 40 people are being treated for possible rabies exposure in north-east Brazil, following an alarming spate of attacks by vampire bats, it has been reported.
The death is the first recorded case of human rabies in Brazil since 2004. The outbreak is the largest wave of attacks ever registered in the region and is being attributed to a disturbing rise in the bat population nesting close to humans. Last Saturday, disease control teams from Bahia state health authority (SESAB) were out in force culling vampire bats by catching them and applying a venom paste to their bodies, in a bid to control the rising numbers.
Edivalson Francisco Souza (pictured), the 46-year-old who died, was milking a cow on a farm in Paramirim when he accidentally stepped on a rabies-carrying bat, which bit his foot
According to SESAB, Edivalson Francisco Souza, the 46-year-old who died, was milking a cow on a farm in Paramirim when he accidentally stepped on a rabies-carrying bat, which bit his foot.
The farmer dismissed the incident, washed the wound but failed to see a doctor.
Three weeks later, after being hospitalised for seven days suffering from headaches, nausea, severe anxiety and shortness of breath, Edivalson remembered the incident.
He tested positive for rabies but it was too late for doctors to administer the vaccine and he passed away shortly afterwards in March this year.
SESAB immediately issued a public health alert, warning of the risks of contracting rabies and ways to stay vigilant.
Within days of the fatality, residents living in the capital city, Salvador, some 400 miles from Paramirim, reported a flurry of attacks by the blood-thirsty creatures that appear to have added human blood to their menu.
Over the last three months, dozens of frightened locals have told of being terrorised by the flying mammals at night.
Many have woken up to the distressing sight of their bed sheets soaked with blood after the animals sunk their fangs into their toes, heels and elbows.
One of the victims, Matheus Andrade, who lives in the historic centre of the city said: ‘I was bitten three times, twice on my toes and once on my heel, in two successive nights around the middle of May.
‘I didn’t realise until the second time that I had been attacked by a bat. At first I thought I had somehow cut my toe during the night.
‘I normally sleep with the windows and doors open and the bats flew in. I never felt any pain at all on both the nights I was bitten. But in my dreams, I did feel as if something had hooked itself onto my toe.
‘When I woke up in the morning, I found the bed was wet. It had been raining overnight and I thought water had dripped in. But it was my blood. It was such a shock.
‘The wound was tiny but deep, the blood was dark and thick and the area wouldn’t stop bleeding even when I tried washing it off.’
The 22-year-old refrigerator engineer was not the only member of his family to suffer the terrifying ordeal.
His mother, Rose Fernandes, 54, said: ‘I was bitten on my toe too while I slept. I didn’t feel anything. My husband woke me up and showed me the dirty sheet.
‘We thought I had cut myself without knowing. But as soon as Matheus told me the same thing had happened to him, we realised it had to be a bat because of the fang-like puncture marks in our toes.
‘It has never happened before and it was very frightening. Now we shut up all the windows and doors at night even though it’s hot.
‘And it’s a good thing we did because the other night I woke up in the early hours of the morning at 1:30 because I heard something banging up against the window.
‘The bat that had bitten me before seemed to have come back for more and was trying to get in. It kept hitting against the glass. It even flew away at some distance and came hurtling back even harder slamming up against the window,’ recalled the teaching assistant, shuddering at the memory.
Both mother and son went to the Couto Maia Hospital and have been prescribed 30 days of anti-rabies and tetanus vaccines, which must be taken until the middle of June.
According to veterinarian Aroldo Carneiro, it’s common for people to confuse bat bites with a simple cut.
Vampire bats, or the common bat, are small nocturnal creatures with a wingspan of about eight inches. They only live in the Americas and feed solely on blood, puncturing the skin of their prey with sharp incisors.
Carneiro, who heads the rabies surveillance unit, explained: ‘The bite does not cause intense pain because in bat saliva there are analgesic and anticoagulant substances, the latter prevents the quick healing of the wound.’
He stressed that bat attacks on humans are rare in Salvador but cited destruction of the nocturnal mammals’ natural habitat and large numbers of abandoned properties in the city centre as factors contributing to the outbreak.
He said: ‘We have detected shifts in bat behaviour and a worrying increase in the population in the area. We believe this is due to deforestation and the destruction of caves, which forces the bats to migrate to the cities.
Carneiro, who heads the rabies surveillance unit, explained: ‘The bite does not cause intense pain because in bat saliva there are analgesic and anticoagulant substances, the latter prevents the quick healing of the wound’
‘The city centre does not have the normal source of food for hematophagous beings (who feed on blood) such as horses and cattle. The vampire bats must find an alternative to live so they bite dogs and cats, and when these aren’t available they turn to humans.
‘In addition, there are many buildings in the historical centre of Salvador which are abandoned and have openings that give access to the wild animals. The empty places provide shelter and nesting sites and this has allowed the numbers to grow.’
To combat the wave of attacks, a task force of disease control agents have been visiting homes in the terrorised neighbourhoods advising residents on how to protect themselves at night – by keeping windows and doors shut, putting up mesh screens, plugging cracks in the roof that can serve as an entrance for the animals, illuminating dark areas in the house and not leaving fruit out overnight.
The teams have been vaccinating cats and dogs. Last year, 91,000 dogs and 32,000 cats were immunised, and agents have been re-emphasising to residents that rabies is almost always fatal unless victims receive early preventative treatment.
Recent surveillance action resulted in the capture of 16 bats and lab tests identified the presence of the rabies virus in a couple of those caught.
Carneiro said: ‘Our disease surveillance teams have been out over the weekend controlling the numbers by trapping them and putting a venom paste on their bodies. This poison is passed on when they make contact with other bats.
‘They must be culled because there are too many in the area, living too close to residents.’
Professor Valdirene Meira da Cunha, 42, believes a bat mistook her home for a cave because after feasting on her big toe, it took refuge on her wall.
She said: ‘I turned on the light and I couldn’t believe it. The bed was covered with my blood. I don’t know what made me look up, but when I did I saw the bat hanging on the wall above my head.
‘It was like a scene out of a horror movie, it was absolutely terrifying and my scream woke everyone up.’
Pensioner Ubaldina dos Santos, 85, said she has not been able to sleep since the outbreak in the area.
‘We’re trying not to panic,’ she said anxiously.
‘But the houses we live in are old, with crevices and cracks where the bats can enter.
‘Everyone is living in fear of waking up and finding a vampire bat drinking their blood like Dracula,’ she added.