Dead bats reported at airport that triggered Delta rabies scare

Federal officials say dead bats have been reported at the Wisconsin airport where a Georgia-bound Delta Air Lines flight originated with a bat on board. The incident led to a nationwide search for 50 passengers to see if they were exposed to rabies.

As of Wednesday, federal officials had reached 43 of the 50 passengers, and none had a level of contact with the bat that required a preventative rabies vaccination, according to Danielle Buttke, spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The CDC is urging the remaining passengers to call 1-866-613-2683.

The CDC said Wednesday that baggage handlers at the Madison airport reported seeing live bats on a regular basis, along with occasional dead bats.

Buttke said bats generally don't die in open areas unless they're sick or suffered trauma. She said federal officials are ready to lend their expertise to Wisconsin toward studying the possible bat colony.

A bat emerged on a Wisconsin-to-Atlanta flight Aug. 5. The flight was forced to return to Wisconsin when the bat appeared. The animal escaped capture, and the passengers boarded another flight.

“We don’t know that this bat had rabies," Buttke told the AJC. "The issue is that bats can have rabies, so that’s why we’re concerned.”

Because the passengers had to change flights, and because many people book flights through travel agencies, tracking down all of the passengers has been time-consuming, Buttke said.

If the bat was rabid, touching it alone would not spread the disease, Buttke said. One would have to have a mucus membrane, such as an open sore, come in contact with the rabid animal's saliva, she said.

There is a vaccine to prevent the development of rabies, but there is no treatment, Buttke said. "It's an incurable disease," she said.

Wisconsin authorities, including a spokesman for the airport and an official with the state Department of Health Services, said they hadn't received any reports of bat colonies or dead bats at the airport.

Doug Voegeli, director of environmental health for the Department of Public Health in Madison and Dane County, noted that bats are common in the area. Of the dozens that are trapped or found dead each year, one or two may test positive for rabies, he added.

Voegeli speculated that the stowaway bat may have made its way onto the plane in search of a cool hideout.

"Often when it's hot out, they'll try to find a place to cool down," he said. "That jet bridge, if there's (air conditioned air) running through it, a bat could certainly hang out in there."

Although investigators will try to determine whether a bat colony has settled at the airport, one CDC official predicts that won't be the case. Dr. Charles Rupprecht, chief of the agency's rabies program, said bats generally prefer quieter areas where they're less likely to be disturbed.

Even if bats have taken up residence, he said there's a good chance they're mothers who gathered in a short-term "maternity colony" to give birth, and will head out on their own when the Wisconsin weather turns chillier. That would keep officials from having to relocate or eradicate the colony.

Buttke said officials weren't trying to alarm passengers with reports of rabid bats. She noted that bats eat a lot of insects and play an important role in the ecosystem.

"Of course, having bats that can end up on a plane is a concern," she said. "It's probably not that pleasant for the bat or the passengers."

-- Staff writer Alexis Stevens and The Associated Press contributed to this story.