Claire H* was struck on Colombia, and like many backpackers she had set aside several weeks out of her post-graduate studies at the University of Michigan to explore the emblematic picture-post cards regions of Colombia. After several days touring the temperate hills of San Agustín, Huila, and sleeping under a thatched roof with the windows open, the American student noticed two small puncture marks on her hand.
Thinking that she had been bitten by a tropical insect and feeling nauseated, she decided to clean her wound and wait until she returned to Bogotá to call a doctor. Upon examining her hand, a team of infectologists from the Clinica del Country, took blood samples and upon analysing the results, informed Claire that she had been attacked by a Desmodus rotundus, a vampire bat native to South America, and especially common in Colombia.
Claire’s wound, almost indiscernible to the eye, had been infected with rabies and she required immediate hospitalization and the application of an anti-rabies vaccine. Had the 26 year-old aspiring MBA taken a trip to Transylvania she might have fared better as vampire bats only inhabit the caves and forests of South America, expanding their reach south from the U.S., and especially prevalent in the Colombian departments of Antioquia, Santander, Huila, Chocó and Tolima.
Feeding primarily on mammal blood, especially cattle herding on farms, the prevalence of the vampire bat is as curious as the fact that vampire stories are prominent in the cul- tures of India, Africa, and Europe – regions of the world where this animal has never lived.
As her stay in Colombia turned into a foray of clinical tests and a long stay in hospital, Claire’s case is one of several which have medical authorities in Bogotá on alert. “We have seen several cases recently of foreigners being bitten by bats,” states Dr. Esperanza Martínez, a public health specialist at the iCare Medical Centre in Bogotá. “But bats don’t differentiate over nationalities.”
While Colombians are not immune to a bat attack and locals who reside in temperate and humid climates know well the symptoms associated with a bite, foreigners who are traveling throughout the country, especially on adventure tourism should take necessary precautions such as sleeping with a long sleeve shirt and covering one’s bed always with a mosquito net. The vampire bat only feeds at night and avoids the light from a full moon. “One of the ways Colombian farmers protect their cattle at night from the vampire bat is to light up their fields with artificial lighting,” states Dr. Martínez.
As the weather gets warmer given climate change, bats are moving to higher ground. Ecologically-motivated tourists to the caves of Santander department and the beaches of the Colombian Pacific should take extra precaution as locals rarely mention the existence of the vampire bat. The beach community of Nuquí is one home of the Colombian blood-sucking species and in order to be bitten requires that its victim is resting. Of 1,300 bat species registered in the world only three feed on blood and all three have been spotted in Colombia.
Even though one might not notice the bite of a vampire bat, there is always blood present as their fangs are extremely sharp and small. Many tourists could easily mistake the bite of a bat for that of a spider or the claws of a centipede.
Even though not all vampire bats carry rabies, one must immediately wash the wound and depending on where you have been bitten (as rabies travels to the brain), reroute your trip to the nearest hospital. Rabies may take weeks to develop and a bat bite is not necessarily a life-threatening situation at first. When in doubt seek medical help. And if you are planning on spending an extended period of time on a farm in Colombia or a tropical outpost best vaccinate against rabies as a preventive measure.
International medical protocol stipulates that one has up to a year for rabies to manifest itself. According to the World Health Association, the vaccines used for pre-exposure and post- exposure vaccination are the same, but the immunization schedule differs. Rabies immunoglobulin (HRIG) is used only for post-exposure and may not be easily available outside large urban centers. Pre-exposure rabies vaccination consists of three full intramuscular doses of cell-culture, while post-exposure requires six doses, HRIG as well as, immediate hospitalization.
So stay clear of the Desmodus. Let it fly to darker pastures. Should you want to get a closer look, rent the movie!