Health Article by Larry D. Jones, MPH, Health Director
April 23, 2013
The snow is gone! Trees are budding and plants are starting to grow after a long winter sleep. As we start enjoying the outdoors after our hibernation, we need to consider that other animals are also emerging from their winter slumber. Once the sun is out longer and weather starts to get warmer, these creatures come out of their winter habitats and start looking for food.
One of the many animals that are waking from their winter slumber with the warmer spring temperatures are bats. Bats are great at helping get rid of mosquitoes, agricultural pests and other nuisance insects upon which bats feed. Even though bats help our environment by eliminating these pesky insects, there are also a number of diseases that a small proportion of bats carry that can be transmitted to people. One of these diseases is called histoplasmosis. This is a disease that primarily affects the lungs. It is caused by a fungus that grows in soil contaminated with bat droppings. These droppings, also known as bat guano, can contaminate the soil and cause infectious spores to be released when the soil is disturbed. Even though it can be found throughout the world, it is widespread in certain areas of the U.S. and can be found in places that harbor large populations of bats, including caves. Cave explorers, spelunkers, divers, and others whose activities take them into or around caves should exercise caution when in these environments. Histoplasmosis can be a serious condition that can lead to death but antifungal medications are used to treat many forms of the disease.
Another disease associated with bats is rabies. In Missouri, the most common animals to carry rabies are skunks and bats. Rabies is a disease that can be fatal if not treated. Fortunately, human deaths in the United States have become relatively rare because: (1) effective vaccinations have been available for dogs and cats since the 1950s, (2) public health practices such as animal quarantine and testing are aggressively pursued, and (3) improved anti-rabies shots have been developed for persons exposed to rabies.
While there have been instances of humans exposed to rabid bats , most bats in a natural setting are not rabid and, in many outdoor situations, the presence or sighting of bats is common and normal. However, precautions can be taken at outdoor locales to help minimize the risk of exposure to bats and their excretions. Besides caves, some bats also roost in tree cavities or foliage, and might be spotted in areas where outdoor activities take place, such as hiking or camping. Therefore, this would be a good time to spread the word that bats can be enjoyed at a distance, but to “bat proof” your home and take appropriate action if you find a bat in your home.
- If a bat is present in your home, contact animal control for assistance. It may be important to capture the bat for rabies testing, especially if a potential bite or exposure has occurred.
- If a bite or exposure to saliva (e.g., into a person's mouth, eyes, or a fresh wound) has occurred, your health department or animal control authority should be contacted to make arrangements for rabies testing.
- If you come across a dead bat, call animal control services to see if they can safely remove the animal.
While bites are a common way for diseases to be spread from bats to humans, exposure to saliva and other secretions can also lead to infection. If you are bitten or saliva from a bat gets into your eyes, nose, mouth, or wounds, wash the affected area thoroughly and get medical attention immediately.
Bats have small teeth that may leave marks not easily seen. Although many people know if they have been bitten by a bat, there are certain circumstances when a person might not be aware or able to tell if a bite has occurred. For example:
- If a person awakes to find a bat in the room
- If you find a bat in a room with an unattended child
- If you see a bat near a person with a disability
If the above occurs, get immediate medical attention. In all circumstances, contact local or state health departments for assistance with medical advice and testing bats for rabies.
For more information on bats, please visit http://www.cdc.gov/Features/Bats or contact the Independence Health Department: Disease Prevention and Control Division at 816-325-7185.