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Bats are bad for your health

Infestation of furry critters causes worries over rabies

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PROVO — Whether or not they suck your blood, hanging out with bats isn't good for your health.

So says the Utah County Health Department, which issued a warning Wednesday that bats are on the loose in Utah and leaving rabies in their flight path.

"We just want people to be aware and cautious," said Lynn Flinders, director of epidemiology for the department. "We'd rather have people call and ask questions than not call and suffer serious consequences."

According to Dr. Joseph Miner, the department's executive director, the recent infestation of bats isn't a bad Halloween omen, but part of an annual migration that brings the furry creatures through Utah on their way to warmer air.

"The bats are headed south, just like the birds, to caves in New Mexico or Mexico," Miner said. "It's a problem every year — we get thousands of them."

This year, however, there has been special concern regarding the proper procedure for handling bats and other animals that may carry the rabies disease. In five recent cases, human exposure to potentially rabid animals resulted in rabies vaccinations that might have been unnecessary.

"In every one of the cases we could have tested the animal," said Justin Jones, a public information officer for the health department, "but because the animals were set free, we could not."

In more than one instance, Miner said, the bats had entered children's bedrooms, where someone was able to capture the bats but let them go before rabies testing could be conducted on the bats' brain tissue.

Since the animals couldn't be tested and the victims couldn't confirm or deny direct exposure with the animals, each person had to endure the expensive and potentially risky vaccination process.

"It's a whole lot easier than paying $1,200 a person," Miner said regarding testing animals over people, noting that one in three bats carries the rabies disease.

Because of the lethal risk posed by rabies — nearly 100 percent for humans who actually develop the disease — the health department encourages vaccinations for all people who think they have been exposed to a rabid animal such as a bat but were unable to capture the animal for testing.

Exposed humans who start the vaccination process within 10 days following the exposure have a nearly 100 percent chance of survival, which may explain why there hasn't been a human rabies case in Utah since 1928.

"Even though there are no bites or scratches on a person, the presence of a bat is evidence of exposure," Miner clarified. "Just saliva can be dangerous."

In the end, however, the best medicine, Miner said, is to detain the offending bat for lab tests that can officially confirm the need for a rabies vaccination.

And what about those telltale bite marks from bats' evil counterpart?

"We don't have a vaccination yet for vampires," Jones said.

E-mail: lsanderson@desnews.com