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Exposure to bats can have scary results

DeKALB – October and the Halloween season conjures images of bats for many people.

But for Greg Maurice, director of environmental health with the DeKalb County Health Department, knows the nocturnal creatures are more than a scary prop in a haunted house or a scary decoration for trick-or-treaters.

Bats are a natural part of the ecosystem and aren’t a nuisance in and of themselves. However, if the animals find their way into homes, it could lead to a series of rabies vaccinations for people exposed to infected bats.

Maurice and his animal control team respond to incidents where people are exposed to bats in their homes – a trend that has grown recently, with a string of about 20 cases within a couple of weeks at the end of summer and beginning of fall.

With 53 cases of bats in homes reported this year, Maurice expects the year’s total to meet or exceed last year’s mark of 75.

“There was definitely a big push this year in the amount of cases,” Maurice said. “You never know when there might be a spike. ... it depends on the weather.”

Handling calls for bats can be a hassle for Maurice and his staff, because there are a number of variables that arise, he said. Locating the bat can take anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours, if they find the animal at all.

He said sometimes people will panic and guide the bat out of the house before health officials can respond, which leads to more hassle for the homeowners.

If the bat cannot be retrieved for rabies testing or the person discovers the bat shortly after waking up, Maurice said the people exposed are strongly encouraged to go through a vaccination series for rabies. Bat bites often are not felt, and rabies can be transmitted through a simple scratch from the bat, he said.

“It can be costly and painful for the person to go through the medical testing,” he said. “It’s important that people try to capture the bat for testing ... it leaves too much up in the air if they don’t.”

Treatment often includes four shots, administered in four separate trips to a medical center over a two-week span. Although rabies is rare in humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that as many as 39,000 people are vaccinated each year as a precaution against the disease, which is almost always fatal to humans.

Maurice said the cost to the county for responding to bats in homes, even during times of higher activity like this year, is minimal but not negligible, as calls about the nocturnal animals often come during overtime hours.

He said he hopes to see a slowdown in calls as the weather cools, but does not expect his dealings with bats to end with the conclusion of Halloween.

“It can happen from screens in an attic vent rotting out over time, a missing board ... a fireplace,” he said of the ways bats access homes. “It can really happen any time.”

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