Gem State Roundup

An Idaho man died of rabies. It was the first death of its kind since 1978.

By: - November 4, 2021 3:00 pm
Photo of fox, bat, skunk and raccoon

In the U.S., rabies is mostly found in wild animals including bats, foxes, raccoons and skunks. (Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

A man from Boise County has died from a rabies infection, according to state and local health officials. It is the first such death in Idaho since 1978.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and Central District Health reported the death in a news release Thursday.

“This tragic case highlights how important it is that Idahoans are aware of the risk of rabies exposure,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said in the release. “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 Boise County man became sick in October and was hospitalized in Boise, where he later died. After investigating his illness, public health officials learned of his exposure to a bat on his property in late August.

The bat flew near the man and became caught in this clothing, the release said. He didn’t think the bat had bitten or scratched him. Because bat teeth are very small, their bites can go undetected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the man’s rabies diagnosis after laboratory testing.

Public health officials are working with the family, health care providers and the hospital that cared for him, to identify people who may have been exposed and give a preventive treatment to those at risk, the release said.

In a similar case in 2018, a Utah man died in a hospital there. (Early in his infection, he’d visited Idaho to see a chiropractor about what he thought was pain from a work-related injury.) After that man’s death, testing confirmed rabies, and dozens of health care workers deemed to be at risk of infection received preventive treatment.

Without preventive treatment soon after exposure, rabies is almost always fatal. Once a person has symptoms, which can take weeks to develop, they cannot be protected from the virus.

There are extremely rare cases of patients who survive infection. An 8-year-old girl in rural California survived in 2011, and a 15-year-old girl survived years earlier. They both required weeks to months of hospitalization and were placed in a coma and intubated, among other approaches.

Health and Welfare says about 60,000 people in the U.S. receive a series of post-exposure vaccinations each year, to ward off infection with the virus. Because of how easy it is to keep the virus from invading the nervous system and spread to the brain, there are only one or two deaths from the disease in the U.S. each year.

Bats are one of the most common carriers of the virus.

“While bats can be beneficial to our environment, people should be wary of any bat encounter, including waking up to a bat in your room, or any situation where there may have been a bite or scratch,” said Dr. Leslie Tengelsen, state public health veterinarian.

Here’s what to do if you encounter a bat, according to Idaho public health officials:

  1. If you have contact with a bat, or wake up to a bat in your home, tent, cabin or other area, don’t release the bat. But don’t handle it, either. Contact your local health department for help. The bat can be captured for rabies testing in a laboratory and, if the test is negative, you don’t need preventive treatment.
  2. If the bat cannot be captured, call your health care provider or local health department. They will help determine your risk of rabies exposure and whether you need preventive treatments.
  3. Idaho Fish and Game provides detailed information about bats, and what to do in other scenarios, on its website, idfg.idaho.gov.

Fourteen bats have tested positive for rabies in Idaho in 2021, according to Health and Welfare. Last year, 11% of 159 bats in Idaho tested positive for rabies.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, radio journalism, data visualization and much more.

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