Over six years, researchers at Sweden’s Public Health Agency (Folkhälsomyndigheten), National Veterinary Institute (veterinärmedicinska anstalt) and Uppsala University collected and analyzed saliva and blood from bats in southern and central parts of Sweden.
The rabies virus was not detected in the saliva of any of the 452 bats studied, but 14 of them had rabies specific antibodies in their blood, indicating that they were or had recently been infected by the virus.
All of the bats with the antibodies belong to the Daubenton’s bat species and were captured in either Skåne or Småland in the south of Sweden. The risk of infection is considered to be “extremely small”, but it cannot be entirely overlooked, experts warned.
“This poses no danger to the public. Normal people will not be bitten, but it is good to know if a researcher or a kid finds a bat and happens to be bitten, at least in Skåne or Småland. In that case you should seek medical attention and treatment,” Uppsala University virology professor Åke Lundkvist told news agency TT.
In 1985 a bat researcher died in Finland, and in 2003 a researcher died in England after being bitten by the same species of bat as the one carrying the antibodies in Sweden.
The virus, European Bat Lyssavirus (EBLV) is a rabies-like virus which has also previously been found in Denmark, Norway and Finland.
Rabies is one of the world’s most-feared viruses, as infected people who start to show symptoms always end up dying, according to the expert.
“Rabies is a bit strange in the sense that if you get treatment before showing symptoms you’ll become 100 percent healthy, but if you show symptoms, 100 percent die. There is no middle ground,” Lundkvist explained.
Sweden has been considered rabies free since 1986, but the researcher says that is no longer the case.
“This means we’re no longer there, though I don’t know whether it will affect the classification. But in any case we don’t have rabies among dogs and cats like so many other countries, which is much more serious,” Lundkvist concluded.
However, as Sweden's National Health Agency noted, according to the standard international definition, a country is still classed as rabies free even if bats carry a rabies-like virus.