A man in Illinois has died after being bitten by a rabies-ridden bat in his sleep and then refusing treatment. The tragic case is believed to be the first human case of rabies in the state since 1954.
The man, a Lake County resident in his 80s, reportedly woke up with a bat on his neck in mid-August 2021, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). After the bat was captured and tested positive for rabies, he was strongly advised to take post-exposure rabies treatment. However, for unknown reasons, he declined.
One month on, the man began experiencing symptoms typical of rabies, such as neck pain, headache, difficulty controlling his arms, finger numbness, and difficulty speaking. Eventually, the patient died from the disease. Wildlife experts later found a whole bat colony living in his home.
Rabies is a truly nasty disease caused by the neurotropic virus Rabies lyssavirus. It’s typically transmitted to humans through the bite of a rabid animal, although transmission can occur through direct contact with saliva or nervous system tissue from an infected animal too. All mammals can be infected with rabies, but it's most often associated with bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, mongooses, and dogs.
If a person’s bitten by an animal with rabies, the virus will travel from the site of the bite to the brain by moving within nerves. The person will not show any symptoms during this time. After a couple of weeks or even months, the infection will reach the brain, leading to severe inflammation of the brain. At this point, you can expect to see symptoms like anxiety, confusion, aggression, delirium, hallucinations, insomnia, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Once these symptoms emerge, the disease is almost always fatal.
Fortunately, rabies in humans is nearly 100 percent preventable if medical treatment is promptly received. If rabies exposure is suspected, people can be given a course of the rabies vaccine, ideally within a few hours of being bitten or scratched. A pre-exposure shot is also available, which is especially important if you're traveling to a country where rabies is prevalent, but it doesn't fully prevent the disease and people exposed to an infected animal still have to seek treatment. Pre-exposure vaccination simply makes the management of the treatment easier and means the patient has to receive fewer doses of the post-exposure rabies shot.
Rabies is becoming increasingly rare in the US. Between 1960 to 2018, there were just 127 human rabies cases reported in the US — and roughly a quarter of those cases were from dog bites received abroad. While the threat of rabies in the US has dramatically shrunk over the past century, this recent fatality in Illinois highlights that the public still needs to be vigilant about this loathsome virus.
“Sadly, this case underscores the importance of raising public awareness about the risk of rabies exposure in the United States,” Mark Pfister, Lake County Health Department Executive Director, said in a statement.
“Rabies has the highest mortality rate of any disease,” added Dr Ngozi Ezike, IDPH Director, “However, there is life-saving treatment for individuals who quickly seek care after being exposed to an animal with rabies. If you think you may have been exposed to rabies, immediately seek medical attention and follow the recommendations of health care providers and public health officials.”