MISSION VIEJO — Twelve-year-old Mark Carlin of Mission Viejo learned an important lesson about bats this week:
If you see one, don't pick it up.
The boy took the first in a monthlong series of rabies vaccinations Thursday after picking up a live, rabid bat and taking it to an Orange County animal hospital a week ago.
County health-care officials began searching for the boy Wednesday when a bat he had taken to the Olympiad Animal Hospital in Mission Viejo later tested positive for rabies. Although Mark was not bitten, health authorities are concerned that the boy could have been infected if the bat's saliva entered any scratch or open skin on his hands.
The boy will undergo a series of five shots over the next month to prevent the onset of the fatal disease, said Dr. Hildy Meyers, epidemiologist for the county Health Care Agency.
He will receive an additional shot of antibodies to help his body deal with the immunization.
The post-exposure treatment, which once involved more than 20 shots to the stomach, "is not the horrible, awful, possibly dangerous treatment it used to be," Meyers said.
The boy said he found the bat in front of his house in the 28000 block of San Lucas Street on Feb. 16 when he and two friends returned home from school.
"We saw the bat on the ground and we thought a cat got it," Mark said. "We poked it with a stick because it was all bloody and stuff."
Mark said he then went inside the house, put on a pair of rubber dishwashing gloves, put the bat in a plastic container and took it to Olympiad. He added that he might have touched the bat's saliva on one of the gloves, and "If I had a hangnail or something I might have gotten infected. . . .
"If I knew it had rabies, I would've just left it there," the boy said. He added that his first set of shots Thursday was painful.
Meyers said that while no cases of rabies in people have been reported in Orange County since 1957, rabies continues to be a major concern for health officials.
If people do not receive medical help after rabies enters their bloodstream, there is a very slim chance they will survive, she said.
"There is no treatment once you have the disease," Meyers said. "It's essentially considered 100% fatal."
The disease is extremely rare in the United States because veterinarians and health care officials have emphasized the vaccinations of dogs, Meyers said. Historically, dogs have been the main conduit of the disease from wild animals to humans.
"That's the reason we have such good rabies control in our area is because we're so aggressive about licensing," said Judy Maitlen, director of animal control for Orange County.
The best way people can protect themselves from rabies is to avoid all strange animals, especially wild animals, Maitlen said.
She said that cats are quickly becoming a rabies threat to humans because, unlike dogs, they are not required by law to be vaccinated against the disease.
"Cats tend to be out of their (owners') property more than dogs," Maitlen said.
In the case of the rabid bat found in Mission Viejo, animal control officers are not worried that other animals in the neighborhood might be affected, Meyers said.
Since 1980, 21 people have been reported with rabies nationwide, Meyers said. Of these, 10 cases were reportedly acquired outside the United States.
But she said that of the 11 rabies cases which were acquired in the country, nine were probably caused by bat bites.
The County Health Care Agency has tested 150 to 500 animals every year for rabies since 1989, and a total of 11--all bats--have tested positive in that time, Meyers said.
In nature, there is a strain of rabies fairly unique to bats, spread through grooming behavior and saliva contact, making bats the primary carriers of the disease in Southern California, said Dr. Michele Jay, a research scientist with the state health department.
"Bats are just very susceptible to this strain," Jay said. "Unfortunately, people are also susceptible, and so are pets."
Jay said that the health department discourages contact with bats, and anyone who sees a bat that seems unusually friendly or cannot fly should immediately notify animal control officials.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Testing for Rabies Of the 2,330 animals tested for rabies in Orange County in the past six years, only 11- all bats- tested positive for the disease. Cats and opossums account for more than half the tests conducted from 1989 to 1994. The testing trend and animals tested: *
Total tests 1994: 294 *
1989- 94 tests Opossums: 36% Other: 4% Bats: 9% Skunks: 11% Cats: 24% Dogs: 16% *
Treatment Evolution Rabies- prevention treatment in humans has evolved in the past century from a painful, dangerous procedure to one that is safe and less agonizing. The trail of advances: *
Pasteur treatment: 1885- 1958; series of injections, usually 23 over 18 days, was the first attempt and the only available immunological treatment. *
Duck embryo: 1958- 80; duck embryo vaccine used with 23 injections. The vaccine failed to produce a antibody in 10% to 20% of recipients. *
HRIG and HDCV: 1980 to present: half of first dose injection at wound site, the rest in muscle. The second, different five- dose series follows, injected in the upper arm, on days 1,3,7,14 and 28. Side effects: swelling, itching, pain and irritation reported in about 25% of recipients. Source: Orange County Health Care Agency; Researched by CAROLINE LEMNKE / Los Angeles Times