Idaho Man Dies of Rabies Two Months After Bat Was Caught in His Clothes—What to Know About the Disease

He was not aware he had been scratched or bitten, according to reports.

A man in Idaho has died from rabies, the first human case of the disease in that state in humans since 1978.

The man "encountered" a bat on his property in late August, according to a news release from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and Central District Health. The bat flew near him and got caught in his clothes, but the man didn't think he had been bitten or scratched.

But in October, the man became sick, was hospitalized, and died. Public health officials say that it wasn't until after his illness was investigated that the man's interaction with the bat was discovered.

"This tragic case highlights how important it is that Idahoans are aware of the risk of rabies exposure," state epidemiologist Christine Hahn said in a statement. "Although deaths are rare, it is critical that people exposed to a bat receive appropriate treatment to prevent the onset of rabies as soon as possible."

The health department also said that public health officials are tracking down people who may have had contact with secretions from the man to give them a preventative treatment for rabies.

The news comes just weeks after a man in Illinois died from rabies after waking up with a bat on his neck. That man declined to be treated for rabies, even after the bat tested positive for the virus. He died about a month after he was bitten and became the first human case of rabies in Illinois since 1954.

It's only natural to have questions about rabies after these instances. Here's what you need to know.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a fatal but preventable viral disease that can spread to people and pets through the bite or scratch of a rabid animal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is mostly found in wild animals like bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes in the US.

Rabies is often fatal if it's not treated in time. The virus infects the central nervous system and can cause disease in a person's brain, eventually killing them, the CDC explains.

While there have been recent reports of people dying of rabies, it's actually rare for people to be infected at all. Only one to three cases of rabies in humans are reported in the US each year, with 25 cases reported between 2009 and 2018, according to the CDC.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

Once someone starts to show the signs of symptoms of rabies they nearly always die of the disease, Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Health. That, he says, is why it's so important to seek medical attention if you even think you've come into contact with a rabid animal.

Early symptoms of rabies tend to resemble the flu, according to the Mayo Clinic. Once the disease progresses, symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Excessive salivation
  • Fear brought on by attempts to drink fluids because of difficulty swallowing water
  • Fear brought on by air blown on the face
  • Hallucinations
  • Insomnia
  • Partial paralysis

When should you get tested and treated for rabies?

Experts say it's crucial to seek care immediately after you interact with an animal you suspect could be rabid. And that's especially true if you have an interaction with a bat, infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health. "Any physical contact with a bat or waking up in a room with a bat present should be assumed to have been a rabies transmission risk," he says. "This would necessitate seeking out medical rare for rabies post-exposure prophylaxis."

If you are bitten or scratched by an animal, the CDC recommends immediately washing the area with soap and water, and then seeing a doctor.

Once you seek medical care, you'll be given post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which is one dose of immune globulin and four doses of rabies vaccine in your arm over a 14-day period, per the CDC. And, again, it's important to seek treatment as soon as possible. "If you don't get the shots soon after the bite, then it is fatal," Dr. Watkins says.

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