State Health Commissioner Issues Bat Rabies Warning
, October 4, 1995 -- Because of the possibility that a 13-year-old Connecticut girl who died of rabies Tuesday at the Westchester County Medical Center may have been infected by a bat, State Health Commissioner Barbara A. DeBuono, M.D., today issued recommendations for 'batproofing' a home.
The Health Commissioner stressed that health officials still do not know how the child contracted the disease, but said the majority of human rabies cases in the United States have resulted from exposure to a rabid bat. Investigators are exploring the possibility that the girl might have a bat exposure that went undetected.
"Wildlife rabies, including bat rabies, is a significant health threat. It is imperative that New Yorkers protect themselves against the disease and respect its deadly potential," Dr. DeBuono said. "All of us must take prevention seriously, in order to minimize the risk of encountering a rabid animal. If an exposure occurs, or if you're not sure, contact your local health agency immediately."
The child was admitted to the Westchester County Medical Center on September 25 with symptoms strongly suggestive of rabies. Test results obtained Saturday from the Health Department's Wadsworth Center Laboratory in Albany identified rabies antibodies in the girl's blood, a finding consistent with her clinical symptoms. Further tests have demonstrated the presence of the rabies virus.
Health officials from New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts (where the child's family vacationed during the summer) are working together to try to determine how she was exposed to the disease.
The last human rabies fatality in New York State was traced to bat rabies. In 1993, a 12-year-old Sullivan County girl died from what was later discovered to be a strain of bat rabies, although it was never learned how she became infected. Experts say a bat bite may be more difficult to recognize than a bite by a larger mammal. It often may go unnoticed, or be mistaken for an insect bite or sting.
"Many people who are aware of the danger of raccoon rabies may not know about bat rabies," the Commissioner said. "Bats rank third in the number of animal rabies cases in New York State, behind raccoons and skunks. The traditional advice to make your premises unattractive to 'wildlife' also should include bats."
Bats can be kept out of homes by closing or covering openings that allow them entry. To batproof, use polypropylene bird netting, fly screening, sheet metal, wood or various caulking compounds, keeping in mind that bats can pass through crevices as thin as a pencil. Before batproofing, make sure there are no bats already in the roost. The best time to batproof is late fall through winter when bats are hibernating in caves, or at night when bats are away from the roost. All openings except one or two major exits may be closed in advance, and the last opening sealed while the animals are away.
Enclosed building overhangs can be opened to eliminate known bat roosts. To discourage roosting behind shutters, these should be installed an inch or more from the wall to allow more light and ventilation. Bats prefer to roost in places that are dark and confined. Old roofing materials should be replaced, and cracks between chimneys and exterior walls filled.
If a bat gets into a home and has not touched any person or pet, it can be released to the outdoors. The bat should be confined to one room, with the lights turned on and the windows left open, so it may escape. However, if a person or pet has been bitten or scratched by a bat, or if a bat has touched an open wound or mucous membranes such as the eyes, nose or mouth, the bat should be captured and tested for rabies. Bats should also be captured if they are discovered inside a house where people have been sleeping, unless a direct contact can be ruled out. Gloves should be worn to avoid direct exposure to the animal.
Should it be necessary to capture a bat, wait for it to land and cover it with a coffee can or similar container. Slide a piece of cardboard under the can and secure it, using tape or some other method. If the bat cannot be caught, and direct contact cannot be ruled out, post-exposure treatment should be considered.
Post-exposure treatment consists of an initial injection of rabies-immune globulin, and a rabies vaccination, followed by four more doses of vaccine over the course of one month. Although many people believe rabies shots are extremely painful, that no longer is true.
It is also important to make sure pets are vaccinated against rabies, and that their shots are up-to-date. Both dogs and cats should be vaccinated, even indoor cats, which often capture bats inside homes.
Other preventative measures include:
- Feed pets indoors, and do not allow them to roam loose, where they might encounter a rabid animal;
- Make sure all household refuse is kept in a secure container;
- Never approach stray pets or wildlife, even if the animals appear tame
- If bitten by a possibly rabid animal, immediately wash the wound with soap and water
- If you need assistance because of a possible rabies exposure, contact your local health agency or call the Rabies Helpline number in the front of your telephone directory.