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Expanded search for 3 in rabid bat case turns up little

By Staff | Jun 30, 2009

A worldwide search for three boys who may have been infected with rabies has so far yielded few results.
The Lee County Health Department expanded its hunt to an international scope Friday, recruiting the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga., to help take the search beyond America’s borders.
LCHD spokeswoman Jennifer James-Mesloh said that despite being initially contacted by the Canadian wire service — comparable to the Associated Press in the United States — the county’s health agency has received no other communications.
“The Canadian wire service contacted us within 15 minutes (of posting the worldwide advisory),” she said. “That’s all we received so far.”
James-Mesloh said the LCHD is trying to put the possible rabies infections into perspective, compiling data to show how many deaths, or bites, occur in Lee County each year.
At present, the LCHD records roughly 1,000 bite cases each year, the majority of which have nothing to do with bats. She said only two people die a year from bites, none from rabies infections.
The LCHD is concerned the boys may have been bitten by the rabid bat and not even realize it.
Cindy Marks, founder of the Florida Bat Conservancy in Pinellas County, said anyone who is bitten by a bat would definitely know it.
Marks, who founded the conservancy in 1994, has been working with bats for 20 years.
“If they were bitten, they would realize it,” she said. “You can feel a bat bite.”
According to Marks, while no one has died in Florida from bat rabies infections, it is not uncommon for bat-related bites to come up once a year.
She said the Brazilian free-tailed bat, which has been identified as the bat in question, is easy to handle and could have been held, kissed and passed around, as it was reportedly handled by the boys in question.
“They hardly move at all,” Marks said. “It’s hard to get them to open their mouths and bite, but it’s not to say they can’t.”
Lee County Parks and Recreation Department biologist Roger Clark conducted a search of the Fort Myers Beach pier and confirmed that Brazilian free-tail bats are roosting underneath the structure.
While not conducting an official count of the bats, Clark said he would not attempt to remove them as they help control insect populations.
“If there are a few hundred or even a thousand, that’s fine. We’re not going to take any action to disturb the colony,” he said. “We certainly want to protect them. They are very important to the natural system.”