Trisha Mercaldo never paid much attention to the rustling in the attic of the rambling farmhouse. But now she scurries downstairs at the slightest noise, worried that another bat is about to dart out and nip her.
The 6-year-old has been nervous ever since she was bitten by a rabid bat Friday afternoon. In what public health officials and naturalists call an extremely rare occurrence, a bat flew out from under a couch and nipped Trisha's finger while she was sitting on the living room floor at her home in Jarrettsville in northwestern Harford County.
Trisha screamed and went running into the kitchen. Her mother, Doris Hogarth, called the police, then managed to trap the bat under a clay flower pot.
A state trooper killed the bat with a broom and took the dead animal to the Harford County Health Department to be analyzed. The next night, a health worker called and told Ms. Hogarth that the creature was infected with the rabies virus.
Trisha began taking the series of five shots early yesterday morning and should be fine.
Bats rarely have rabies, despite their reputation as diseased vermin that bite children and get tangled in people's hair, said Heidi Hughes, co-founder of the Rockville-based American Bat Conservation Society. "The likelihood of being bitten by a rabid bat is the same likelihood of being hit by lightning at a church picnic," she said. "You're more likely to be bitten by a rabid cow in Iowa than by a bat."
Although Maryland has seen a rabies epidemic among raccoons since 1981, the incidence among bats is quite low, said Dr. Jack K. Grigor, chief of veterinary public health with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Of 468 rabid animals found in Maryland in 1990, only 14 -- about 3 percent -- were bats. That compares with 382 rabid raccoons, 35 skunks and 17 foxes.
But Dr. Grigor warned that even if rabies in bats is rare, the disease is extremely dangerous, and people should take precautions to avoid being bitten. The last person in Maryland to die of rabies was nipped by a bat in 1976, he said. "Too often people try to handle wild animals, especially an animal that acts sick or acts too friendly," he said. "It's very important that people are aware of the risks and that they do get medical treatment if they're bitten."
Trisha was bitten in something of a freak accident. She didn't even see the bat before it darted out from under the couch. "It hurt," she said yesterday. "I like horses, but I don't like bats."
Her mother complained that she had a tough time getting a rabies vaccine. Two hospitals she called in Harford County had no rabies immune globulin on hand, so she eventually took Trisha to Franklin Square Hospital in Essex, where the little girl got her first shots at 1 a.m. yesterday.
Dr. Diane Dwyer, chief of clinical epidemiology with the state Department of Health, said many hospitals do not stock the rabies immune globulin because it is expensive and has a short shelf life. Instead, they rely on local health departments to supply the serum on an as-needed basis. The county health department would have supplied the serum within hours, she said, but if Ms. Hogarth wanted shots immediately, she was right in finding a hospital with serum on hand.
Ms. Hogarth's experience has left her leery of bats, even though she is an animal lover who grew up on farms and boards horses. "I don't want to go up [to the attic]," she said. "I don't even want to sit in the living room."