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Dealing with bats and the rabies vaccine

  • 4 min to read

Four years ago my family had a couple visitors, one who died in the bathtub and one who wound up costing us thousands of dollars.

We found bats in our then-93-year-old house on two separate occasions in August, 2015.

The first bat was found in the tub after returning from vacation.

The second bat woke me up in my bedroom. In my semi-conscious state I thought I heard a clacking keyboard.

It may have actually been my wife, Betsy, who woke me, screaming through clenched teeth.

By the time I realized a bat was flying around the bedroom it was flying around a shelf several feet away.

Betsy discovered the bat, before then however, when it was bouncing around the nightstand lamp, just above Betsy’s head.

My wife spent most the next hour with her head under the covers while I stood in the closet, in my underwear, attempting to catch the bat by heaving my terry cloth bathrobe at it — like a Biblical-era fisherman throwing a net.

Eventually the bat left the bedroom. I’d opened the door before scuttling into the closet.

Betsy found the bat later, caught it and released it outside.

That was the wrong move.

The next day I met with Michele Bever and Jessica Warner, who are executive director and health surveillance coordinator, respectively, for the South Heartland District Health Department.

The correct procedure after catching the bat, they told me, would’ve been to take it to a veterinarian who sends it into the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Veterinary Diagnostic Center for rabies testing.

The state pays the lab fee. However, there is a fee for the vet to prepare the bat and send it to Lincoln.

Jessica reminded me recently that bat season is once again picking up as it does every summer.

She said bat season is all summer long — after they come out of hibernation.

“I’d really like for people to know if they do have a bat in their house when they are sleeping that they should save it for testing,” she said. “Don’t let the bat out because if people end up needing the rabies series it’s really expensive.”

Expensive it was.

I also learned, talking with Michele and Jessica, that If the person is unable to say ‘I did not get bitten by a bat’ for children or any adult who may not be capable of saying for sure they were not bitten — such as someone who was sleeping — they should get the vaccine.

Bat bites are small and not painful. Jessica said it’s possible to get bitten by a bat and not know it,” Jessica said.

Most bats don’t have rabies.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even among bats submitted for rabies testing because they could be captured, were obviously weak or sick, or had been captured by a cat, only about 6 percent had rabies. Jessica emphasized that figure is only for bats that have been tested and the actual number could be higher.

I was fully prepared to shake off my bedroom encounter with the bat as so many people do, including a few of my Tribune co-workers over the years. There was only a 6 percent chance of dying and that was only if I’d been bitten.

My wife, however, was not.

Our son, Jonah, was 1 at the time.

After consulting with her physician, because the bat had been just above her head, Betsy had visions of herself wasting away as a water-fearing zombie — which is a hyperbolic description of what happens when a human contracts the fatal disease. She would die leaving me to raise Jonah by myself.

Nobody wanted that, especially Jonah.

So Betsy and I got the vaccines.

Everyone grows up hearing getting the rabies vaccine means a series of painful shots in the stomach.

I don’t know if that was ever the case, but it’s not the case now.

When I received the vaccine it was four shots in the shoulder over the course of 14 days plus two shots of immunoglobulin in each thigh on the day of the first shoulder shot.

The Immunoglobulin vaccine is made up of antibodies against the rabies virus.

The injection contains human proteins that are prepared from screened plasma donors. It is used to prevent rabies after exposure.

Someone with a compromised immune system would also receive a fourth dose of the vaccine 28 days after the first shot.

None of my shots were any more painful than a regular flu vaccine. The providers at Mary Lanning Healthcare’s infusion clinic, who gave me my doses of vaccine with kind and professional.

We wound up paying nearly $2,000, which thanks to insurance was far less than the $16,000 it would’ve cost for us both to get the vaccines without insurance.

Again, that was four years ago. So the cost would likely be more today.

While the shots weren’t painful, it was time consuming to have to go to Mary Lanning four times to get the vaccine.

I may have followed Jessica’s advice four years ago to get the vaccine, but Betsy and I have yet to follow Jessica’s latest suggestion.

“Ideally it’s better to just make your house so that you don’t have bats coming in,” she said.

Exterminators can do an assessment of a house to find the specific point of entry, looking at areas such as the chimney or any cracks or holes that may exist in the attic or elsewhere.

“We’ve visited with people that have had bats in their house on several occasions,” she said. “Unfortunately, after you’ve had bats in your house four or five times, it’s just time to go ahead and get your house fixed.”

The cost to bat-proof a home will most likely be cheaper than getting the rabies vaccine for everyone in the home who may have been exposed to a bat.

“If it’s that frequent then there’s really a problem and you might as well get it fixed rather than spending the thousands of dollars to get the rabies series,” she said. “I would like to save people the expense and also the headache of having to worry ‘oh did someone in my family get bitten by a bit or did they not?’ Depending on your insurance it’s really expensive.”

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