Don’t pick them up: Bats with rabies make appearance in Illinois early this year

_Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that students that have been bitten by a bat should get tested for rabies. The article should have stated that such a test does not exist, and students should instead go to an emergency room at a local hospital to evaluate their exposure and receive preventative treatment. The Daily Illini regrets the error. This article has been updated._

Rabies may bring to mind stray raccoons, possums and squirrels, but officials from the Illinois Department of Public Health are warning students to beware of one more animal: bats.

Last week, the department, or IDPH, announced that warm winter temperatures have led to earlier bat activity increasing the risk of exposure to rabies. The first rabid bat in Illinois has been found this year, and the two individuals suffering bite wounds are currently receiving treatment. Bats are the primary carriers of rabies in Illinois.

According to the IDPH, rabies is a virus that affects a human’s nervous system and is spread through the saliva of an infected animal. In 2011, 49 bats tested positive for rabies.

Lisa Powers, graduate student in integrative biology, researches bat conservation in Illinois and said only half a percent of bats actually carry rabies. Despite this, she said people may be more likely to get rabies from a bat versus another animal.

“Most people — if they see a skunk, it wouldn’t occur to them to go and pick it up,” Powers said. “But bats are so tiny; they’re smaller than a mouse and they’re weird and interesting, so people are more tempted to pick them up.”

Powers said she noticed bats in this region becoming active earlier in the year because warm weather brings them out of hibernation sooner in order to feed.

“Their goal is to get out as soon as the weather is warm enough for insects to be flying around, and they go into feeding mode,” she said. “They are just little bug-eating machines.”

However, Powers doesn’t entirely agree with the IDPH that earlier bat activity will increase a person’s exposure to rabies.

“I guess I would have to talk to (the IDPH) and find out what their rationale is behind it,” she said. “I mean, the bats are still coming out, and they’re still doing the same thing they always do, they’re just doing it earlier. So I don’t know that people are any more at risk than they would be otherwise.”

The bats students are most likely to encounter are eptesicus fuscus, or Big Brown bats, Powers said. They usually reside in older campus buildings and sometimes find a home in students’ apartments, according to Susan Northrup, warden for Champaign County Animal Control.

“The buildings (at the University) are so old that they do have bats in them, up in the rafters,” she said. “Some of them find their way to student apartments after they’ve been bothered by move-in week.”

There have been 5 to 10 instances per year of students getting bitten by bats on campus, according to David Lawrance, medical director at McKinley Health Center. If a bat bites a student, it is important that he or she seek immediate medical attention, he said.

“We tell (students) to come in, we call animal control, and we send them to the emergency room,” Lawrance said. “It’s a very serious thing. Rabies is virtually 100 percent fatal.”

If students come into contact with a bat, Lawrance and Norphrup said they should avoid touching the bat, remain calm and call animal control.

“Just stay away from them. Just respect it just as you would with any other animal,” Lawrance said. “And most bats are well and healthy, and they’re fine.”

Even though some bats may transmit rabies, they play an important role.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management cites some of those reasons as being for pollination and insect control.

“Bats actually are beneficial to us,” Powers said. “People get scared when they hear about rabies and they say, ‘Well, why don’t we just kill off all the bats,’ but we really need those little guys.”