A parent of a student who touched a dead bat at a Fort Smith school last Friday said he is “disgusted” with the school’s handling of the incident.
The bat has now tested negative for rabies, the Department of Health and Social Services confirmed. Seven people, including students, touched the bat while outdoors at the Joseph Burr Tyrrell Elementary School culture activity area.
Parents were informed of the negative test on Wednesday night, said parent Bernie Minute.
Minute said his son Kieran, who is eight years old, was one of the students who found and picked up the dead bat. Minute said he had no idea the incident had taken place until Tuesday.
Minute said he is “disgusted with the school system” and wants to know why parents were not contacted about the incident earlier.
“From Friday afternoon until Tuesday was how long this went unreported to the parents,” Minute said. “I feel that they have no care or intelligence to deal with our children.”
Minute said his wife got an urgent call on Tuesday from public health officials, after which his son received the first of three rabies vaccine doses given following possible exposure to the virus.
The NWT’s deputy chief public health officer, Andy Delli Pizzi, said the public health team was made aware of the incident on Monday, whereupon the office began calling parents – continuing to make those calls late into the evening. Vaccinations started on Tuesday morning, he said.
Principal Pam Walsh said the school followed proper protocol in having public health officials contact parents, rather than school staff.
“We had to contact public health and it was public health who would be contacting the parents, because they would have answers to any questions they would have,” she said.
What happened in the period between Friday and Monday is something Walsh said she is “not at liberty to talk about” as it involves a personnel matter.
As a parent, Minute said he plans to educate his son about incidents like this in the future. Minute said the incident should have been reported immediately and parents should have been contacted by the school on Friday.
“We dodged a bullet here, the bat was negative for rabies,” he said. “But still, it’s absolutely ridiculous that they would just do nothing about it.”
The World Health Organization deems potential rabies transmission due to contact with bats a “severe exposure” and recommends”‘immediate vaccination and administration of rabies immunoglobulin.”
Delli Pizzi said there is a “window of safety” where the vaccine can be given as rabies usually takes “many weeks” to develop after exposure.
“Sometimes it can develop quicker based on the nature of exposure, but typically it takes many weeks to develop,” he said. “So there is a window for providing the post-exposure prophylaxis.”
According to Health Canada guidelines, the treatment should be given immediately unless rabies is not considered likely and the animal is available for testing. The health agency further states that “post-exposure prophylaxis should not be delayed beyond 48 hours while waiting for test results in wild animals.”
Although there is a risk of rabies transmission from bats to humans in the NWT, Delli Pizzi said that risk is very low. There have been no human rabies cases reported in the NWT from any animal, and there have been no documented cases of NWT bats with rabies in the past 20 years.
Fewer than one percent of bats across North America carry rabies, said wildlife biologist Jesika Reimer. The fact that the bat was deceased makes transmission even less likely.
“It’s a live virus that doesn’t move for very long. So unless they were picking up the bat and putting its teeth into their skin, sharing bodily fluids with the bat, the chances that they’re going to contract anything from that, I would say, are relatively low,” she said.
Despite the low risk, Delli Pizzi said any touching of a bat is considered an “exposure” as the animal’s very tiny teeth can sometimes produce bites which are barely noticeable.