Bat brings fear of rabies back to Britain

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Two women - one of whom is pregnant - are receiving rabies-prevention treatment this weekend, after being nipped by a bat which is likely to have carried the disease.

Ministers said last night that there was no cause for alarm after the discovery of the animal, in Newhaven, East Sussex. But the Government advised people to avoid handling sick bats and to see a doctor immediately if bitten by one.

Sheila Wright, whose child is due in about 10 days, was bitten on the hand by the bat but said yesterday that she was more worried about a possible backlash against bats than any danger to her.

The tiny, fairly rare Daubentons bat, weighing just eight grams, was found hanging on a house wall; distressed and unable to fly, it attempted to bite anyone who tried to handle it.

The bat, which has since been put down, is likely to have come from the Continent, where bat rabies is widespread. It may have arrived on a ship.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has organised a search for a colony, but has not found one. Nor is it likely to, for there appears to be little suitable habitat in the area. The species hunts for insects over fresh water and roofs, under bridges and in other cool, damp places.

"We have no evidence that this was anything other than an isolated case," Tony Baldry, an agriculture minister, said.

In Europe there have been only two probable known cases of people having died from rabies contracted from bats. The most recent involved a 30- year-old Finnish teacher who had handled bats around Europe. In 1985 he developed classic rabies symptoms - spreading paralysis, intense pain and great excitability and fear.

The two women in Newhaven received small nips rather than deep bites. The MAFF declined to name them, but one is a volunteer with a bat conservation group who was called to see the sick animal and the other was helping her.

The dead animal was sent to the MAFF's central veterinary laboratory at Weybridge, Surrey, earlier this week. An initial antibody test indicated it had the virus but it will take three weeks before rabies can be confirmed.

The two women are receiving injections which should enable them to fight off the virus if it has entered their bodies.

Judith Hilton, a senior medical officer with the Department of Health, said the prognosis with modern anti-rabies treatments was excellent.