We don’t know how common rabies is in the bat population, since most testing of bats is sporadic and focused on bats with which people have been in contact (a group that doesn’t likely represent the overall bat population). However, we know it’s there and we know it’s widespread. We know that people get exposed to rabid bats. Most importantly, while bat-associated rabies in people is rare overall (especially compared in dog-associated rabies in Asia and Africa where canine rabies is endemic), exposure to rabid bats is still an important cause of human rabies in Canada and the US.
The risk of bat rabies was highlighted by the recent death of person in Florida. I haven’t seen many details but it’s been reported in the news that a person from Highlands County, FL, died of rabies, most likely transmitted by a bite from a bat.
Bats are an important reservoir. Any bite (or potential bite) from a bat must be considered a potential rabies exposure unless the bat is tested and shown to be negative. Because bat bites don’t cause much trauma, they’re easy for people to ignore. If anything, increased awareness is needed. On the flip side, paranoia is also bad, and exterminating normal healthy bats also makes no sense as they play an important role in natural ecosystems, and it’s not an effective way to control the risk of rabies. People need to know that there is a risk of rabies from bat encounters, and who to contact (i.e. public health) should contact occur. The same risk applies to domestic animals – if your dog or cat has come into contact with a bat, contact your veterinarian for advice on booster vaccination for the pet and potential testing if the bat is available.