The Loudoun County Health Department is recommending rabies vaccinations for 22 Washington, D.C.-area Girl Scouts, following an investigation that stemmed from reports of bats at a Lucketts Girl Scout camp.
In July, health officials sent out surveys to the families of 948 girls who attended Camp Potomac Woods during five sessions this summer after a mother reported her daughter had seen bats in her cabin, Charlene Meidlinger, assistant director of the Girl Scouts Council of the Nation's Capital, said.
The surveys asked if the Scouts had seen bats, come into contact with or been bitten by bats, Meidlinger said. The Health Department then contacted girls based on their answers for further questioning.
"The girls we recommend get the vaccination remembered seeing a bat in their shelter at the time they were going to bed at night," Dr. David Goodfriend, director of the Loudoun County Health Department, said. "And by their own admission they were not completely covered by the mosquito netting."
The Girl Scouts provide mosquito netting in each cabin for campers to sleep beneath, which was intended to protect the Scouts from insects, but also provide protection from bats.
GOODFRIEND SAID two girls reported petting bats, but that no girls reported being bitten. The rabies virus can only be transferred through saliva or brain matter, not through the skin contact or by being scratched.
"In all likelihood the rest of these girls never came in contact with a bat," Goodfriend said, "but we want to err on the side of caution."
Spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) David Daigle said it is important to use extra caution when dealing with possible rabies exposure through bats because bat bites are very hard to feel.
"A person may not even know they were bitten," he said. "Bats have very sharp teeth."
To date, five bats have been caught on the 101-acre camp site and each one has tested negative for rabies.
"There is no way to know how many bats were actually on the camp site," Meidlinger said, "which is why we are being very careful."
As part of the investigation, the Health Department has talked with girls who reported seeing bats and every Scout who they bunked with.
"At the younger age, the challenge is they may not fully remember something from a month ago," Goodfriend said. "We are trying to work with parents to get the best history we can."
Camp Potomac Woods is home to Scouts from age 6 to 12 during the summers, Meidlinger said. The girls recommended for the vaccination are from all five summer sessions and range in ages.
Goodfriend said he knows of no case of human rabies in the county and that the chance any of the Scouts had contact with rabies is extremely low.
SINCE THE investigation began, the Health Department has been in contact with the Centers for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., for help and information about how to proceed.
"It is typical for us to get involved when a state or locality is dealing with possible rabies exposure," Daigle said. "But we haven't felt we needed to put anyone on the ground for the investigation. The local authorities are handling it well."
For its part, the CDC sent out a health advisory to local doctors to inform them that parents might be calling in to set up appointments for rabies vaccination.
"The vaccination is something that every doctor will already have on hand," Daigle said.
The vaccination for rabies takes place over five visits for five rounds of shots, Daigle said. The first visit will consist of three to five shots and the remaining visits require only one shot.
There is a very specific process to the vaccination with the remaining treatments to come three, seven, 14 and 28 days after the original treatment.
"The specific nature of the treatment is why a lot of people go to the emergency room where they know they can be treated at any time," Goodfriend said.
The Girl Scouts is paying for the treatment for each of the girls recommended for vaccination, around $2,000 per camper.
"We have always had campers insurance," Meidlinger said. "There will be no extra burden on the families of these Scouts."
THE HEALTH DEPARTMENT will be following up with girls who were recommended for vaccination to make sure they are getting the treatments.
"We are trying to follow up with all of the girls," Goodfriend said. "Our goal is to get … to [all] 948 [campers]."
In the coming weeks, the Health Department will continue to speak with girls and try to reach those who they have yet to speak with.
"We're not here to try and bother people," Goodfriend said. "Besides the surveys, we have left messages with every family. If they choose not to call us, we will have to trust that their daughter did not see a bat. If at some point a girl changes her story then of course we'd investigate that."
There is never a point that the vaccination becomes ineffective, but most people tend to exhibit symptoms within one to three months, Goodfriend said. The Health Department is not contacting girls who attended the camp last year because there were no reports of bats.
"Nothing is 100 percent sure in life, but we're confident," Goodfriend said.
While parents are naturally concerned for the daughters, Meidlinger said most of the parents have been understanding about the situation.
"We have fabulous parents," she said. "On the whole people realize that this is the out of doors and bats live in the woods."
Goodfriend added that bats are common in more wooded and rural areas and usually seeing a bat in the sky or a tree is not cause for concern.
"Usually bats are positive for our environment," he said. "We just don't want them where we sleep."