53 students, staffers advised to get rabies vaccine after West High bat infestation

Fruit bat. file photo: Wikipedia Commons/Bernard Dupont

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Sept. 22, 2017 (Gephardt Daily) — Health officials have recommended that 53 people who had direct contact with any of the hundreds of bats that infested West High School this week take the series of four rabies shots.

Eileen Risk, a top epidemiologist with the Salt Lake County Health Department, said most of those 53 are students at the school, but a few are staff members.

And that number could grow.

“We are still reaching out to people who may not believe their exposure was serious,” Risk told Gephardt Daily. Direct contact is defined as skin-to-skin, skin-to-fang, or skin-to-claw contact.

According to the Center for Disease Control, only about 6 percent of bats have rabies, but the most common cause of rabies in humans is exposure to infected bats.

And by the time the symptoms of rabies become apparent, it is too late to treat the disease, which is “uniformly fatal,” Risk said.

“We are really pushing people with direct contact to get the vaccines,” she said. “We are going back next week to talk to people.”

The treatment is a series of four vaccines, the first accompanied by a Rabies Immune Globulin shot. The series is administered over two weeks, and is not as painful as it was in the past, when shots had to be given in the abdomen. Now, the shots feel about the same as any common vaccine, Risk said.

Risk said she gets reports of bats at West High and multiple other schools each year. District officials estimate the peak number of bats present at West High this week at about 200. On Wednesday, the school closed at 3 p.m. so the bats could be captured and relocated, according to officials.

Windows that had been left open were closed, and cracks and holes in the building were sealed, district officials have said. The school is located along the bats’ annual migration route.

WHS Principal Ford White on Friday sent a letter to students’ parents, and posted it on the school’s website:

Dear Parents,

As this week comes to an end, I wanted to thank you for your support as we dealt with the bats that entered the school as they migrated through Salt Lake City. On Wednesday, we closed the school at 3 p.m. and removed the bats from the building. A large crew of district and school custodians worked late into the night on Wednesday and again very early on Thursday morning to complete a detailed inspection of the interior and exterior of the school. They closed any open windows and sealed cracks and crevices to prevent bats from entering the school again.

On Wednesday and Thursday, staff from the Salt Lake County Health Department were at West to identify students who may have been in contact with any of the bats. Procedures to protect students are being followed according to school district and public health guidelines. If it is determined that your student was exposed to any bats, health department staff will contact you with further recommendations.

Please speak with your student(s) about this incident. If you are concerned that they may have touched or otherwise come into contact with a bat, please contact your family physician, or call the Salt Lake County Health Department at 385-468-4222.

At West High School we are committed to providing a safe environment for our children. The safety of your students is our top priority, and we appreciate your understanding and patience as we worked to resolve this issue.

Sincerely,
Ford White
Principal

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