Despite Teresa Jacobs' feelings on rabies, an Orange County Commissioner will build bat boxes to combat mosquitoes anyway


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Orange County Commissioner Emily Bonilla says she has a plan to install 30 bat houses in her district for mosquito control, but county Mayor Teresa Jacobs says she's more worried about the threat of rabies infections.

"There has been a misunderstanding of not only the memo, but also the bats," says Bonilla, whose district covers rural East Orange County, in a statement. "It seems that this memo was interpreted as my office asking for permission from the board to work on this project. I made it very clear in the memo that I was working on this project and was just requesting if county staff could work with my office for this."

At first glance, the implementation of bats for the sake of mosquito control is a great idea for a region that's flush with stagnant water, which typically serves as ripe breeding grounds for the insects, and under threat of mosquito-borne illnesses, like Zika or the West Nile virus.

"Insectivorous bats are often touted as a potential biological control for mosquito populations," a study on the National Institutes of Health's website reads. "Many of these claims stem from [a study] that suggested that bats may serve as an alternative approach to broad-scale mosquito control, with a single bat capable of consuming up to 600 mosquitoes per hour."

And yet, there's (sort of ) a downside to the commissioner's idea, too: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which provides an information page on bats and rabies, says bats are the nation's most common source of human rabies infections … of which there are about one or two cases annually in the U.S.

But no matter the stats, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs isn't keen on the idea, as she said Tuesday. Jacobs cited the story of a 6-year-old Eustis boy named Ryker Roque, who died of rabies after being either scratched or bitten by a bat in January, as her reasoning.

"There is risk and the risk is deadly," Jacobs says in response to the project memo provided by Bonilla. "I'd rather get a mosquito bite than rabies."

According to the CDC, in recent years preventative medicine "has proven nearly 100 percent successful" in eliminating rabies deaths countrywide. In fact, the CDC found that there were about 100 deaths annually around the year 1900, while as recently as the 1990s, that number had declined to one, maybe two, each year. In the U.S., the CDC says only 23 people have contracted rabies over the past decades – eight of whom came in contact with it while traveling abroad.

Also, as of 2015, the CDC says, wild animals accounted for more than 92 percent of reported rabies cases – most of them bats and raccoons. Further back, the CDC also found that 17 of the 19 naturally acquired cases of human rabies infections in the U.S. from 1997 to 2006 were associated with bats.

The World Health Organization also states "[in] the Americas, bats are now the major source of human rabies deaths, as dog-mediated transmission has mostly been broken in this region."

So, yes, bats are the main carriers of rabies in the U.S. But was the fatal incident involving Roque a one-off freak accident? As tragic as the little boy's death was, science points to yes.

Here's the question that carries the most weight: If the presence of bats can be used to control the mosquito population, thus potentially saving the lives of others, is it worth it for the citizens of Orange County, even if it comes with an (astronomically small, statistically) amount of risk?

Regardless of that minute risk, Bonilla tells Orlando Weekly that she plans to push on with the project, though the memo she provided to Jacobs and her fellow commissioners didn't lay out specifics of cost, placement or other nitty-gritty details.

"This issue has received a lot of news attention and provides a great opportunity for us to get the story right about bats," Bonilla says. "Bats are incredible creatures which are misunderstood. There are myths that 'all bats carry rabies.' This is false. Studies have shown that less than 1 percent of bats have been found to carry rabies. A person has a better chance of winning the state lottery jackpot than catching rabies from a bat ..."

Bonilla adds: "Due to Mayor Jacobs' objection, we are withdrawing our memo and my office will no longer work with the county staff on this project. We will continue to work on this project in conjunction with the Florida Bat Conservancy. We welcome all community partners who would like to collaborate with us on this issue."

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