On Thursday, the boys, age 11 to 13, began a series of rabies shots delivered by the school nurse after handling a live bat they found on the campus and which later tested positive for rabies.
Polk Principal Eva Vigil said the boys found the bat outside the school gymnasium Wednesday morning and carried it to science teacher Renee Rivera, presumably to get a little impromptu science lesson. Rivera immediately had the bat placed in a box and contacted school nurse Annetta Good, who then called the state Department of Health.
“They picked up the bat within the hour and by the next morning we were informed that the bat had tested positive for rabies,” Vigil said. “Everybody moved quickly and knew what to do.”
And now the students know what not to do. “Don’t handle bats,” said Dr. Chad Smelser, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the Health Department.
Each of the exposed boys will receive a single human rabies immunoglobulin antibody injection, on top of four rabies vaccinations strung out over two weeks, Smelser said. The shots, administered by the school nurse, can be given in the arm or in the buttocks.
“Rabies is a viral illness that’s transmitted by the bite of a rabid animal,” he explained. If the saliva of the animal enters a person’s body via a bite, or through a cut on the hand or gets smeared into the eyes, the virus “travels up the nerves to the central nervous system and the brain and causes encephalitis,” or inflammation. The virus, Smelser said, “destroys brain tissue and brain function, the person goes into a coma and eventually dies.”
If the exposed person is not treated quickly and the virus spreads, it is nearly 100 percent fatal, he said. However, “people who receive the shots in a timely fashion are 100 percent protected.” The shots do not confer lifelong immunity, so any future contact with rabid animals requires the same shot treatment, he added.
Vigil said none of the boys indicated he had been bitten by the bat, but Smelser pointed out that some bat species have extremely small teeth and people may not even be aware that they had been bitten.
Smelser said virologists testing the bat believe it was a Mexican free-tailed bat, a common species in our state.
In New Mexico, the high-risk animals for rabies are bats, skunks and, in the southwest part of the state, foxes.
The best and safest advice if encountering these animals, Smelser said, is keep your distance and don’t touch them.
And that’s a science lesson worth learning.