The United States had the most rabies deaths in a decade in 2021

Three bat species A) Eptesicus fuscus (large brown bat), B) Lasionycteris noctivagans (silver-haired bat) and C) Tadarida brasiliensis (Mexican free-tailed bat) involved in three of the U.S. rabies cases reported last year.

Three bat species A) Eptesicus fuscus (large brown bat), B) Lasionycteris noctivagans (silver-haired bat) and C) Tadarida brasiliensis (Mexican free-tailed bat) involved in three of the U.S. rabies cases reported last year.
Photo: CDC: Photo A / unidentified patient; Photo B / Mark Mayfield; Photo C / Stephen Gergeni

Rabies was unusually deadly in the United States last year, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, with oneat least five people who die from viral disease in 2021. Rabies can be transmitted to humans from infected animals and is almost always fatal without fasting post-exposure therapy.

CDC told Associated Press late Thursday night that five cases of rabies had been reported in 2021. Three of the cases were described in a new report by CDC researchers and local health officials released Friday. The three deaths involved people who got rabies in August, all from close contact with bats.

In a case earlier covered of Gizmodo, a man in his 80s in Illinois caught the bat that bit him and sent it for testing, confirming the presence of rabies. But he refused preventive treatment of -one rabies vaccine along with donated antibodies. At the time, the man’s reasons for the refusal were unclear, but the new one The CDC report says he cited a fear of vaccines. About a month later, he developed common rabies symptoms such as neck pain, paralysis, a changed mental state and difficulty swallowing and died shortly after. He was the first rabies death reported in the state in nearly 70 years.

Another death involved a young boy in Texas, who was admitted in November after contact with a bat. In the third case, a man in Idaho did not recognize the need for rabies treatment after an encounter with a bat bbecause he he thought had not been slightly or scratched.

Rabies is a frightening viral infection that affects the brain and spinal cord. Depending on the route of exposure, it can take weeks to months for symptoms to occur, during which time post-exposure prophylaxis can almost always prevent illness and death. Once people start feeling sick, very little can be done and they cases are almost always fatal. Although now rare in many parts of the world, many are wild due to animal control and dog vaccination programs mammal carry the virus, including bats. Only about one to three cases of rabies are reported annually in the United States today, and 2021’s total highest seen since 2011.

Unfortunately, one of them deaths involved a man who received treatment after exposure but who probably did not respond to it due to undocumented problems with his immune system, according to the AP. The fifth death involved a person who was bitten by a rabid dog while traveling in the Philippines and who later died in New York.

Contrary to popular belief, bats are not productive carriers of rabies, with only a small percentage believed to have it at any given time (although there are some speculation that bats might not get as sick from rabies as other animals, they can still die of it). But the CDC report authors note that about 60,000 Americans seek treatment for a possible rabies exposure each year, and that about two-thirds of those exposures are likely to involve bats.

Although rabies remain a rare problem in the United States, the report notice some cautious steps can be taken to further cut back risk. People should be aware that bats can carry rabies and avoid contact with them, the authors say, and if they come in close contact with a bat, they should try to catch it for testing. People should also be quickly assessed for treatment after a close exposure of bats or wildlife, and should be treated if rabies can not be ruled out.

Although these treatments are life-saving, they can unfortunately be prohibitively expensive, costs thousands even with insurance.

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