A Illinois man had the accident as it became the first case of rabies recorded in the state in nearly 70 years, health officials reported this week. Unfortunately, like most sick victims of rabies, the man did not survive. He refused preventive treatment a month earlier.
Rabies causes a virus (Lyssavirus rabies virus) which can infect most of any mammal, including humans. When it enters the host, the virus penetrates the nervous system causing inflammation and neurological symptoms such as confusion, aggression, excessive saliva production, fear of water and eventually paralysis and death. Usually, the virus is spread by a bite or other exposure to the saliva or mucus of a rabid animal that is charged with the virus.
There is no effective way to treat rabies when symptoms begin, and only a few people have survived the final stage of the infection. But there are widely available vaccines that can work even after confirmed exposure to the virus, as long as they are taken weeks before symptoms begin. Exposed humans are also given a large dose of anti-rabies antibody collected from the blood of immunized humans or animals.
Rabies remains a serious threat in many poorer parts of the world. But animal control programs and mass vaccination of pets such as dogs and cats have significantly reduced the number of people in the U.S. and other countries. Today, about one to two rabies deaths are reported annually in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the virus still spreads easily among wild animals, and can occasionally spread to humans here under the right conditions.
The Illinois Department of Public Health reported one of these rare encounters on Tuesday. In mid-August, a Lake County resident in the ’80s woke up with a bat on his neck. The bat was caught, and it was later discovered that the entire colony lived in his house. After the bat was known to have had rabies, the man was advised to seek treatment after exposure. But for whatever reason, he refused. A month later, he began to develop symptoms, including neck pain, headache, numbness of the fingers, and difficulty speaking; soon after, he died. Those who may have been in close contact with the man’s body fluids and opted for preventive treatment were also assessed, officials said. It is the first case of rabies to be recorded in Illinois since 1954.
“Unfortunately, this case underscores the importance of raising public awareness of the dangers of rabies exposure in the United States,” Lake County Health Department Executive Mark Pfister told statement. “Human rabies infections are rare in the United States; however, when symptoms begin, rabies is almost always fatal, which is why it is vital that the exposed person receives appropriate treatment to prevent the onset of rabies as soon as possible. “
Bats are the most commonly reported source of rabies exposure in the U.S., accounting for 70% of human rabies deaths, the CDC says. They may also have been the original hosts of the ancestral virus that caused rabies and other related viruses. But many animals are capable of transmitting rabies to humans, and most bats does not wear rabies, nor can you just see by looking to see if the bat has rabies.
It is therefore important that anyone who has been bitten or scratched by an animal be aware of their potential risk of rabies, especially if the animal was wild or not known to be vaccinated against rabies, in the case of free-roaming pets. Ideally, a bitten animal can be caught and tested for rabies, but if not, doctors may recommend post-exposure prophylaxis, depending on circumstances. Although rabies infections are rare in the United States, around 55, 000 Americans realize this treatment after exposure per year, according to the CDC.
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