- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Fearing a fatal foe, D.C. health officials have issued the “bat signal.”

The threat is not the Joker or Mr. Freeze. It’s rabies.

A year after the number of rabid bats found in the District increased to 16, the D.C. Department of Health yesterday issued a health alert, warning of increased bat activity and asking residents to avoid contact with the flying mammals.

Although no alert has been issued in Maryland or Virginia, D.C. officials did not want to take any chances after a bat captured earlier this year tested positive for rabies, said Dr. Gregg A. Pane, director of the D.C. Health Department. The District normally sees one or two cases of rabies among bats each year.

“We just wanted to get ahead of the issue,” Dr. Pane said. “We’ve had an increased number of bats coming into homes and one case of a rabid bat.”

Bats tend to be more active in the spring and summer, raising the risk of rabies exposure for humans and pets, Dr. Pane said. Fewer than 1 percent of bats have rabies, he said.

Those who think they might have been bitten by a bat should wash the wound and immediately seek medical attention. A vaccine exists, but the disease is typically deadly if left untreated.

Residents who find bats in their homes should seal off the room to prevent the bat from escaping, turn on a light if possible to encourage the bat to sleep and call Animal Control, Dr. Pane said.

The recent heat wave might have encouraged bat activity, Dr. Pane said. Bat colonies during the summer seek out hot areas, such as crawl spaces and attics, as females raise their young.

“They’re still active in this warm weather — unlike humans,” Dr. Pane said.

In Maryland, four rabid bats had been reported as of Monday, said Kim Mitchell, an epidemiologist for the state health department’s Center for Veterinary Public Health.

Last year, the center reported 23 rabid bats, up from 10 in 2003, Ms. Mitchell said. But bats, which accounted for nearly 7 percent of rabies cases in the state last year, are a minor threat compared with raccoons, which were involved in 72 percent of cases.

In Virginia, the state’s Health and Game and Inland Fisheries departments did not report an influx in bat population or activity.

“Springtime is when bats tend to be more active, but we are not aware of any greater activity than is typical for this time of year,” said Julia Murphy, veterinary epidemiologist for the Virginia Department of Health. The department last month reminded residents that bats become more active in the spring and summer.

“We don’t want people to have direct contact with bats, but if they do — for instance, waking up in a room with a bat — we want them to know the best course of action to take,” Ms. Murphy said.

While asking residents who find bats in their homes to trap them so the animals can be tested, she cautioned that residents should not try to trap or kill bats that are not a nuisance.

“We don’t want to promote the proactive removal of bats from their area, because they are very useful to the environment,” Ms. Murphy said.

The winged creatures managed to wriggle their way into the Virginia legislature earlier this year, and Gov. Mark Warner signed a bill designating the Virginia big-eared bat as the official state bat.

Although a healthy person is more likely to die of a bee sting than a bat bite, the District’s alert was meant to protect people, not scare them, Dr. Pane said.

“A small percentage of bats have rabies and a small percentage are going to bite you, but one case is too many,” he said.

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