IOWA CITY — Bats are common in Iowa in the summer, and they occasionally enter buildings — including the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, where recent encounters with the winged mammals have prompted patient safety alerts.
“The reason for sending the patient safety alert message was to protect the health and safety of our patients, visitors, and staff, which is our top priority,” UIHC spokesman Tom Moore told The Gazette by email. “The email reminded all employees of the process they should follow if they find a bat in the hospital.”
The most recent UIHC bat was found at 12:40 p.m. Friday in a stairwell on the fourth level of the Roy Carver Pavilion. The hospital receives about 10 reports of bats in its facilities a year, typically in non-patient care areas, according to Moore.
He didn’t answer The Gazette’s questions about how many have been reported in the hospital in the past six months and whether the number has been increasing.
A UIHC patient safety alert urged anyone who finds a bat in the hospital — dead or alive — not to touch it and to immediately contact hospital epidemiology. The email also urged reporting parties to try and contain the bat in a closed area so it doesn’t escape before help arrives and to minimize contact between the bat and people.
A trained member of the university’s environmental services supervisory staff will capture the bat and retain it while determining whether anyone was exposed to the rabies virus, which bats can transmit to humans through bites and scratches, according to the alert.
Hospital epidemiology will work with the Iowa Department of Public Health to determine whether further testing of the bat is necessary and whether anyone involved needs “rabies post-exposure prophylaxis” — involving a dose of human rabies immune globulin and rabies vaccine given on the day of the rabies exposure.
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“Bats occasionally enter buildings, including hospitals, and can fly through entrances when doors are opened or squeeze through cracks as small as the size of a dime,” Moore said.
Iowa hosts nine species of bats, which are most prevalent during the spring, summer and fall — before many migrate south for the winter, according to Adam Janke, an Iowa State University assistant professor and extension wildlife specialist.
Some species have an affinity for living in attics and barns, as they’re innately skilled at seeking out caves and tight spaces using their senses for discerning air currents, Janke said. Bats are more common in old buildings — because they can squeeze through holes no bigger than a thumb — and Janke said the ISU campus has a few buildings where they regularly turn up.
Although Janke stressed no one should handle a bat “under any circumstances,” he said they get a bad rap in that very few actually carry rabies. Bats, in fact, play a crucial role in our ecosystem by dining on problematic insects like beetles, mosquitoes, and the corn rootworm — troublesome for farmers.
An Illinois study found bats provide farmers $1 billion annually in insect pest control.
“It’s not true that all bats have rabies — it’s really far from the truth,” Janke said. “More than 90 percent don’t have rabies. And that’s a conservative number.”
A more common threat to human health is bat feces. Like any rodent or mammal droppings in a house, they can accumulate and grow mold, posing a risk to human health. They also can carry a fungus that can cause histoplasmosis — a disease caught by inhaling the fungal spores that can cause flu-like symptoms and become more serious if not treated.
But due to the important role bats play in Iowa’s ecosystem, state law protects them — although homeowners are allowed to defend their property. UIHC, according to Moore, has a comprehensive pest-control, maintenance, and inspection program for its facilities.
ISU reports repellents are largely ineffective on bats — including “sonic” and “ultrasonic” devices, along with mothballs. The most effective way to repel bats is through exclusion tactics, like finding their entry points and cutting them off — after first allowing the bats out.
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“You want to figure out how they’re getting in and take that option away,” Janke said.
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