www.co.hunterdon.nj.us | Department of Health | 2008 Public Information & Notices Dated 08/27/2008

County Health Department
For more information, contact Carl Rachel at 908-788-1351


Rabies Specimens Bound for Testing

Frank Rossano, public health investigator with the Hunterdon County Department of Health, prepares for a trip to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services rabies laboratory in Trenton.  Preserving and transporting just-received bat specimens in proper condition is a must to ensure the samples are acceptable for testing.

If you’ve ever woken up to a bat doing fast, low swoops over your bed, you’re familiar with that sudden quandary, “What do I do now?”  What you do next is actually very important.  Not only do you have to remove yourself from the threat of contact, but you also have to see to it the bat is captured so it can be tested for rabies.  Regardless if the capture is done by you, an emergency responder, or a professional wildlife handler, proper handling of this specimen is essential to preserve it for testing, and to ensure personal protection.

“Too many times we hear from residents that they let the bat go,” said Jim Gallos, consumer health coordinator with the Environmental Health division, part of the Hunterdon County Department of Health.  “While that seems like the humane thing to do, allowing the bat to escape eliminates any chance of testing it for rabies. If even slight contact was made and undetected by a resident, that poses a serious health risk.”

Confounding that health risk is the fact that the rabies vaccine local physicians would use to protect someone possibly exposed to rabies is currently not available in large amounts. While the supply issue is expected only to be temporary, it does mean residents should be more vigilant than ever to avoid any possible contact with wildlife that could carry rabies, Gallos advised.

The county health department sends specimens – when they are properly captured – to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services rabies laboratory in Trenton for testing.  Gallos said the more stressful issue is when there was possible contact with a bat but there is no specimen to test because the bat was freed.

“The Department of Health and Senior Services recently alerted all health departments statewide about receiving numerous calls from people saying they had a bat in their home but they, or whoever assisted them, let it go,” explained Gallos. “We’re strongly encouraging against this. With the limited supplies of rabies vaccine now available, we’re urging residents to capture any bats they find in their homes so we can test them and eliminate the need for unnecessary rabies treatments.”

To reinforce this idea, the county health department this week sent out an advisory to all police departments and animal control officers explaining proper methods for capture and preservation of bat specimens.  The Local Information Network and Communication System (LINCS) message had these recommendations:  Do not open a window or otherwise release the bat from the home; do not crush or destroy the head of the bat during capture (this may render brain tissue unsatisfactory for testing); put on leather work gloves;  wait until bat lands; place a small box or coffee can over the bat; slide cardboard under the container to trap the bat inside; securely tape the cardboard to the container; punch small holes in the top.

Once captured, residents or responders should contact the county health department at 908-788-1351.  “We ask that the captured specimen is brought to our office and at that time we get basic information to process the request for a rabies lab test,” said Gallos. “We take specimens to Trenton for testing as quickly as possible and advise the resident about the findings.”

If a bat encounter occurs during the weekend, and a resident comes in contact with a bat but the specimen is not available for testing, they should call their physician to determine if they meet the definition of a bite or non-bite exposure. If the physician decides an exposure occurred, the doctor needs to contact the county health department or the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services for a consultation and a password to order vaccine for treatment.

“In cases where we have a bat to test and the resident’s encounter meets the definition of bite exposure, the health department provides the physician with the password to order the vaccine,” Gallos explained.  “Treatment can then begin, and if the bat results come back negative, the course of any further treatment is the physician’s decision.”

“I’d like to remind the public that if a pet cat or dog is playing with or captures a bat, the bat should not be freed or discarded,” added Gallos.  “We ask people to bring such specimens in for testing and to take the pet to their vet who can help decide if a rabies booster shot is appropriate.”

It pays to remember that overall not many bats have rabies.  Annually in New Jersey, approximately 1,000 bats are submitted for lab testing and only 40 are confirmed positive for rabies.

“Bat attacks are extremely rare,” said Gallos.  “While the actual danger of rabies exposure is minimal, it is always a possibility. But we also like to point out the good that bats do, and provide some education about these wildlife residents. First, we tell people that bats are the only truly flying mammals, they’re not rodents.  Another important fact is that all bats found in New Jersey are strictly insect eaters, and they can consume hundreds of insects in an hour.”  Gallos added that bats are not blind, but they depend more on their sonar than eyesight to navigate, avoid obstacles, and capture insects.  The young are born in June and July.  Bats are hibernators and usually enter caves, mines, buildings and even sewers in the fall to hibernate over winter.

“Some of the more interesting facts,” Gallos continued, “are that our common bats congregate in colonies and return to the same roost year after year. Individual bats can live to be 30 years old, and colonies can exist at the same location for over 100 years.”

More information about rabies and free rabies clinics for household pets can be found on the Hunterdon County Department of Health site at http://www.co.hunterdon.nj.us/health.htm.  The health department also distributes rabies literature countywide at public sites and veterinarian offices.

| Department of Health | 2008 Public Information & Notices