Record-Breaking Year for Rabies in Illinois

State health officials and wildlife experts have no answer for a worrisome statistic: The number of rabies cases in Illinois this year is the highest on record.

So far, there have been 99 confirmed rabies cases among bats--almost double the previous highs of 51, set in 2004 and 2005.

Since 1996, bats have accounted for 97% of the animal rabies cases in Illinois. But other animals, including skunks, foxes, dogs and cows--even a horse--have tested positive for the disease in past years, according to the health department's Web site.

Officials are warning people not to touch bats and to call authorities if they see bats lying on the ground or flying during the day.

"If you see a bat in the daytime, especially on the ground, that's a pretty solid indication they are diseased," said Vic Reato, spokesman for the Will County Health Department.

State health officials said the reasons for the spike were unclear.

The percentage of bats that tested positive for rabies in Illinois has climbed to 9% this year, from the typical 3 to 5%, state public health department veterinarian Connie Austin, DVM, PhD, said.

One possible explanation is that construction on previously undeveloped land has led to more people sharing land with wildlife, Reato said. That also might explain why most of the rabies cases have been in rapidly developing Cook, DuPage, Will, McHenry, and Lake counties, he said.

A health department map shows that Cook County accounts for 25 cases, while counties such as Massac County at the southernmost tip of the state and Mercer County along the Mississippi River each have reported just one rabid bat.

Reato also said there is a greater awareness about bats and rabies, which might have led to more reports.

One bat expert said she doesn't believe more bats have rabies, but that the numbers of reports have climbed simply because more bats are being tested.

"The percentage of bats getting rabies is about one half of 1%," said Barbara French, science officer for Bat Conservation International, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit organization that works to protect bats and bat habitats around the world. "The number [of bats with rabies] in the wild has remained the same for decades."

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The Associated Press

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