Rabies is probably the most deadly infectious disease for humans. Worldwide, about 59,000 people die of it every year. Only very few cases of human disease have been described that did not end in the death of the patient.
In Europe, human rabies diseases have become a rarity. The last case of human rabies infection acquired in Austria was diagnosed in 1979 and was due to a fox bite. Since 2008 Austria is recognized free of terrestrial rabies transmitted by foxes or dogs. Vaccination baits for foxes were last distributed in 2012. Our neighboring countries Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic (with the exception of the border area with Poland and Slovakia) are also considered free of terrestrial rabies. In Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia, sporadic cases of rabies in wild animals, especially foxes, have been documented in recent years.
However, rabies remains endemic in many areas of the world. The highest risk of infection occurs when traveling to Southeast Asia, India, or North Africa. The last rabies death in Austria occurred in 2004, a 23-year-old man died after being bitten by a dog in Morocco. Vaccination is therefore recommended for people planning to travel to a rabies endemic area.
For a comprehensive overview of rabies, see the AGES report "Rabies" from the Wissen aktuell series
Special case of bat rabies
Rabies caused by bats is not caused by the classical rabies virus, but by several other related lyssaviruses. Bat rabies is a distinct infectious event and is not related to terrestrial rabies. Isolated transmissions of rabies from bats to humans have been described in Europe, and over 1,000 cases of rabies in bats have been recorded from 1954 to 2013. More than 90% of the findings were from Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, and Germany. At the AGES National Reference Laboratory for Rabies, over 1,750 bats were tested for lyssavirus from 2006 to 2023, all with negative results. In September 2023, bat rabies virus was now confirmed for the first time in a broad-winged bat in Austria: The animal had already died in June at the Bat Rescue Austria sanctuary. No bat rabies virus was detected in another 55 currently examined bats.
No fear of bat rabies
Bats do not attack humans, even if they have rabies. However, they may bite if handled. Therefore, the safest prevention against bat rabies is to not touch them without proper expertise and protection! This is especially true for animals found outdoors during the day that are flightless or exhibit conspicuous behavior.
- The mere presence of a bat in the same room is not sufficient for transmission of the pathogen.
- Neither dropped young animals nor droppings, urine, or even hibernating animals pose a risk.
- Breathing air in attics and other bat roosts in houses and barns also poses no rabies risk. Especially in late August and September, bats are scouting possible winter roosts, such as in attics.
If bats are found - dead or alive - you should inform the nearest available bat experts(https://www.fledermaus-rettung.at/) or the district veterinarian.