An increase in the number of exposures to the only mammal that can fly has public health officials in Utah warning the public to avoid contact with bats.
Bear River Health Department Immunization Program Manager Lisa Perkins and other Utah public health officials are working to inform the public about an increase in the number of people reporting encounters with bats. Some of the encounters have been in caves and other outdoor areas where you expect to see bats. Others, she said, are finding the animal in more unusual places.
“They have seen a bat and maybe they have touched one or they were asleep and they have found one in their room,” said Perkins. “So we get contacted that there has been an encounter and we have to evaluate each situation.”
Perkins said there is reason for the public to be concerned because bats are known to carry rabies, which affects the nervous system of humans and animals. So far this year the Utah Department of Health reports that 70 bats have been captured and tested for the virus. Seven of those bats had rabies.
“We do not want them to touch it, hit it or try and remove it themselves,” she said. “Call animal control right away and then animal control will attempt to get the bat. We send it to the state lab and it is evaluated as to whether it would test positive or negative to the rabies.”
Perkins is also encouraging pet owners to protect dogs and cats from exposure to rabies by making sure they are vaccinated. An increase in the number of humans coming into contact with bats could mean domestic animals are more likely to contract the virus if not protected.
In cases where a person is bitten by a pet who is showing signs of rabies or who has even touched a bat, health department officials are recommending individuals contact a health care provider to see about receiving a series of rabies prevention shots.
“Even the saliva can carry it and so if there is even the slightest chance then we would recommend they would go through the post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) because you don’t want to become symptomatic. If you wait for symptoms to occur it can be fatal,” said Perkins.
Every year an estimated 40,000 people receive a rabies PEP for potential exposure to rabies.
Utah public health officials say it is not unusual to see an increase in bat activity this time of year but that the number of possible exposures to unhealthy bats they have seen so far warrants the warning.