Displaced Bats: The Latest Public Health Concern?
Cockroaches, mice, and rats, oh my! These days, this list of unwelcome household pests is incomplete without the mention of bats. Encounters with bats in the home seem to be on the rise and may represent a yet untold, serious, and potentially life-threatening public health concern.
There’s nothing like a shocking interaction with a bat in the middle of the night to cement the bond between a married couple. My parents are now receiving rabies shots as a result of a bat bite my mother sustained while sleeping in her bedroom. She denies coming in contact with the bat, never felt the bite, and didn’t realize there even was a bat in the room until she awoke to the startling noise of it flying around.
FACT #1: Bats only need an opening roughly the size of a quarter to gain access to living quarters in a home.
FACT #2: Bats are relatively small and generally weigh only ounces. Because their teeth are small but sharp, people may not realize they have been bitten or the wounds may not be obvious. Heavy sleepers, mentally incapacitated individuals, the visually impaired or others with disabilities, children, and the elderly may be at particular risk.
This event occurred later in the month of July, a time when bat pups are taking flight and leaving the roost. So, it is possible that my mother encountered a disoriented bat pup that was not yet adept at flying.
FACT #3: Bats want as little to do with us as we want to do with them. They bite as a defensive tactic or because they are sick or injured.
My mother noticed the wound on her hand the night after the incident. It looked like a superficial scrape or a prick from a rose thorn. She was certain it had not been there when she went to bed the night before. Eventually, she realized that the wound was likely a bat bite, and she was counseled to get medical treatment immediately.
FACT #4: It has been reported that most cases of rabies in humans are contracted through bat bites. Although the overall number of human rabies cases remains low, rabies affects the central nervous system and is considered deadly, especially when symptoms appear. Prompt treatment with a series of shots given over a 2-week period is advised. If a bat is found in the home, it should not be handled, but all members of the household should seek medical advice, even if there is no obvious evidence of a bite. Exposure to a bat in the home may be enough to warrant treatment.
FACT #5: It is estimated that anywhere from 0.5% to 5% of the bat population may be infected with rabies and able to transmit the virus to humans through a bite. A dead bat should be put on ice and sent to a public health laboratory for testing as soon as possible.
My father ultimately managed to eliminate the bat with the help of a tennis racket. He bagged the bat in plastic and later stored it on ice until police retrieved it for testing. Test results came back inconclusive, so my parents continue to receive the full course of treatment with the entire series of rabies shots.
FACT #6: Not all hospitals stock the rabies vaccine. It is important to locate a facility equipped to administer it.
During the visits my parents made to the local emergency room, they soon realized that they were not alone in this experience. The hospital ran short of vaccine on many occasions and needed to acquire more to meet the high demand. Many of the cases involved people either bitten or exposed to bats.
Aside from creating an extreme sense of unease and feeling of being violated that something like this could happen in their home, my parents were embarrassed, because they maintain their home in good condition.
FACT #7: As the natural habitats for bats diminish, they have adapted. Some have taken up residence and sought shelter in homes – under the eaves or in the attic – where conditions may be ripe for breeding and colonization.
FACT #8: Bats are beneficial to the environment; they help to keep the insect population under control and mean no harm to humans.
If bats are detected in or near a home, the premises should be inspected to rule out the presence of a roost or bat colony, and all crevices, gaps, holes, etc., should be sealed. If a roost is found, exclusionary steps should be taken to remove and relocate the bats and eventually eradicate the problem in a humane way. Information about proper techniques and available professional services are widely available online.
Please help spread the word about this growing and very real public health concern that demands attention and heightened awareness. The thought – worst case – that without treatment, I could have lost both my parents to such a horrific disease as rabies is unfathomable. Bat encounters are entirely preventable and manageable, provided that people are aware, informed, and know the right steps to take if exposed or caught with a bat trapped indoors.