Rabid bats found in Eagle, Grand counties; Summit officials urge caution
A single rabid bat has been found in both Eagle and Grand counties, and while they haven’t appeared in Summit, county officials are asking residents to be cautious when encountering bats. September is the busiest month for bat removal and bat-proofing homes as the furry flying critters start going into hibernation for the fall and winter.
There are only one to three human rabies cases in the country each year. Timely treatment is almost always successful. However, rabies is almost always fatal after symptoms develop, and proper preparation and awareness of its danger is essential to keep it rare.
Amanda Merriman, a registered nurse with the county department of public health, said that rabid bats have not been spotted in Summit County since 2011. But that’s not a reason to think the virus can’t reappear in bat populations here.
“Bats don’t know county lines,” Merriman said, pointing out all the contiguous forest in the High Country. “It’s not that there is an immediate concern, as much as it is a good reminder to be aware of precautions that you should take when you’re out in wilderness and enjoying the great outdoors.”
Rabies can infect any mammal. In Colorado, skunks and bats are the main vectors for rabies. Rabies is very rare among bats, only infecting 6 percent of bats captured because they were sick or suspected of having rabies. However, they are still the most common vectors for human rabies cases. Given the danger of the disease, humans should not put their guard down due to rarity.
Merriman said that the virus, which is transmitted by saliva and brain tissue, is usually spread from wild animals through bites or scratches. Anyone who has been bitten or scratched by a bat or any other wild animal should always seek immediate medical attention.
Hannah Butler, an environmental health specialist with the county’s department of environmental health, said that residents who have bats trapped in their house after roosting should contact animal control to help evict them or seek other professional help if they don’t leave on their own. Since bats are so small, bites or scratches may occur without a human noticing, such as while they’re asleep.
One of the reasons rabies cases are so rare among humans is because of effective vaccination programs for pets, which are also indirect vectors for rabies to humans. Butler said administering timely vaccinations to pets is a continually effective way to stop the spread of the disease to humans and other pets.
If you encounter a dead or seemingly sick bat on your property, take extra caution with gloves or other protective equipment over your hands, nose and mouth before disposing. Wash your hands with soap and water thoroughly.
Butler urged that if it is possible, and can be done safely, save specimens for analysis as rabies can only be diagnosed through lab work on brain tissue. Early warnings about rabies infections are also very effective ways to prevent spread.
With all this being said, Butler wants people to know that bats are incredibly important to the local environment as they are vital predators that keep night insect populations, like mosquitoes, in check.
“They play a huge role eating insects and pollinating plants,” Butler said. “They’re a critical player in the whole ecosystem. We’re not trying to get rid of bats, we’re just trying to teach people how to coexist with them and the environment safely and responsibly.”
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