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Vampire bats blamed for Venezuela rabies outbreak

At least 38 Venezuelans have died as a result of a suspected outbreak of rabies spread by bites from vampire bats. Laboratory tests have yet to confirm the cause, but the symptoms point to rabies, say researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and other medical experts.

At least 38 Warao Indians have died since June 2007, 16 of them since the start of June this year, according to a report that the Berkeley researchers, an anthropologist and public health specialist, and indigenous leaders provided to Venezuelan officials last week.

All the victims died within two to seven days after the onset of symptoms. One village, Mukuboina, lost eight of its roughly 80 inhabitants – all of them children.

Health officials investigating the outbreak are now planning to distribute mosquito nets to prevent bat bites and send a medical boat to provide treatment in the remote villages on the Orinoco river delta.

Outbreaks of rabies spread by vampire bats are a problem in various tropical areas of South America, including Brazil and Peru. The common vampire bat, which feeds on mammals' blood, swoops down and generally approaches its sleeping prey on the ground. The bat then makes a small incision with its teeth, and an anticoagulant in its saliva keeps the blood flowing while it drinks the blood. Symptoms of rabies include fever, tingling in the feet followed by paralysis, and an extreme fear of water.