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Epidemiologic Notes and Reports Possible Rabies Exposure from Bats -- Texas

On December 28, 1983, a group of 11 children in Corpus Christi, Texas, were exposed to dead bats. Due to extremely cold weather, 29 Mexican Free-Tail bats roosting under a bridge had frozen and fallen to the ground in the early morning. They were discovered by the children, ages 4-14 years, about noon. The bats were partially thawed, and several had blood draining from their mouths. One or more of the children, emulating a popular singer, put a bat in the mouth and pretended to bite it. There ensued a free-for-all in which the children threw bats at each other. All 11 children were hit by bats.

Later that day, the Corpus Christi-Nueces County Department of Public Health was notified of the incident, and by that evening, the Director of Public Health had discussed the situation with the nine families involved. It was not possible to determine which children were exposed to the blood and/or saliva of bats. Because of the possibility that all the children had some exposure of mucous membranes or scratches in the skin, the health director recommended complete postexposure rabies prophylaxis for all 11 children; all 11 received it, and all have remained well. Only four of the 29 bats were examined by the fluorescent antibody technique, and they were negative. However, a 1983 sampling of approximately 600 south Texas bats had revealed a positive test rate of 15%. Reported by CMG Buttery, MD, RM Rodriguez, MD, G McLerran, T Villarreal, J Green, Corpus Christi-Nueces County Dept of Public Health; O Sieber, MD, Driscoll Foundation Children's Hospital, TL Gustafson, MD, CE Alexander, MD, State Epidemiologist, Texas Dept of Health; Viral and Rickettsial Zoonoses Br, Div of Viral Diseases, Center for Infectious Diseases, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: This episode illustrates two issues frequently faced by public health professionals with regard to bat rabies: (1) the persons involved often cannot agree about the actual sequence of events in such episodes; (2) the bats involved are frequently unavailable for laboratory study. Thus, in this case, the critical decisions regarding prophylaxis rested on questionable histories provided by children and incomplete or unsatisfactory laboratory specimens. News media events that show people playing with bats may not imply any danger; however, the national news media attention given this incident was beneficial in educating the public to potential risks. Locally, it resulted in the identification of an additional group of children in Corpus Christi that had played with dead bats and required rabies prophylaxis.

The risk to most of these children would appear to be minimal--nonbite exposure to animals already dead, probably for several hours. Exposure, if it occurred, would seem most likely through bat saliva in direct contact with children's oral mucous membranes when they mouthed the bats and/or by salivary contamination of fresh scratches and which, in this case, could have been made by the bats' teeth and claws during play. Prevention of episodes such as this are probably impossible, but proper education of the public to the health risks should reduce their occurrence.

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