ST. PETERSBURG — During a birthday party at an apartment complex last Saturday, a boy brought a special surprise, tucked in a bag.
A live bat.
"He was going to do a show and tell, I guess," said Mary Ann Kennedy, 42, whose 8-year-old daughter Emily attended the party at the Meadows Apartments complex in north St. Petersburg.
The "surprise" got passed around. The kids started poking and prodding.
Then one boy, who neighbors said is 8 years old, picked the animal up. It bit him, setting off a health scare.
No adults were present at the time, officials said. All of the children are younger than 12.
"How they found a bat in the first place, I don't know," Kennedy said. "It's been craziness since this happened."
More children may have been exposed to the bat, said epidemiologist Andrea Castillo, who is leading the investigation. The six identified for treatment so far will receive a four-dose, post-exposure vaccine given over two weeks. The shots are administered in the buttocks and arm.
Officials could not find the bat the children were playing with so they don't know if the animal was carrying the rabies virus. Bats are known to be the most common carriers of rabies in the United States.
The last case of rabies acquired within Florida was in 1948 in Hillsborough County.
"Cases of rabies are rare in humans and we really want to keep it that way, because it's nearly always fatal," Castillo said. "Because we are dealing with a group of children who handled a bat, we take this very seriously. We don't want any of these kids to get sick."
Handling a rabid animal could lead to the contamination of open wounds, cuts and scratches or accidentally ingesting germs carrying the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Left untreated, rabies symptoms can take several weeks to manifest, and once they do, the illness is irreversible, health officials noted.
Rabies treatment consists of local treatment of the wound, followed by vaccine therapy to prevent infection. The shots should begin within 10 days of exposure.
All of the children are being treated as if they have been exposed to the virus.
"It's a small price to pay to be assured your child is safe," Castillo said.
Longtime resident Sheila King, whose 9-year-old daughter Annabell plays with the children who were at the party, said she is friends with the mother of the boy who was bitten. She said there are lots of bats — and other creatures — in the area.
"Kids are just curious about animals," she said. "I've lived here 17 years. The place has always had bats."
While the Health Department is notified of cases of possible rabies exposure on a daily basis, officials said this situation is unusual because it involved a group of children playing with a bat.
Officials taped letters on the doors of more than 300 apartment units and placed posters throughout the complex, located at 785 117th Ter. N.
Any parents who think their children may have been exposed have been asked to call the Health Department immediately at (727) 824-6932.
Officials warned that parents should not assume that because their children aren't showing symptoms they haven't been put at risk.
Kennedy said she initially wasn't worried, because her daughter saw but did not touch the bat. But Health Department officials have been calling her nonstop, she said. Today, her daughter will begin the series of rabies shots.
"They basically scared me," she said. "I'd rather be safe than sorry."
Times staff writers Letitia Stein and Richard Martin contributed to this story.