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BOISE — An Idaho man who state health officials believe didn't know he was bitten or scratched by a bat in late August died as a result of rabies last month, officials said Thursday.
It's the state's first human rabies death since 1978, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and Central District Health.
"This tragic case highlights how important it is that Idahoans are aware of the risk of rabies exposure," said Idaho State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn, 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 agencies report that a Boise County man, whose name and age were not released, encountered a bat at his home in late August. The bat flew near him and became caught in his clothing but the man was unaware that he was bitten or scratched. Boise County is about an hour-and-a-half drive from the city of Boise, which is the state capital and county seat of Ada County.
Then, sometime in October, the man become ill and was hospitalized in the Boise area before he died. Officials said they learned about the bat incident when they investigated his death. They said they've since been in contact with the man's family, those who treated him and anyone else who may been exposed to the virus.
Idaho — and Utah — health officials pointed out that rabies has the highest mortality rate of any disease; however, human rabies deaths are extremely rare. In 2018, a 55-year-old Moroni man was Utah's first rabies fatality since 1944. That case three years ago also involved bats.
"Once a person begins to show signs of the disease, there is no effective treatment, and rabies is almost always fatal," said Utah Department of Health disease epidemiologist Hannah Rettler, in a statement on Sept. 24, after a pair of pets came in contact with rabies-carrying wildlife in the St. George area earlier this year.
"That is why it is so important to work with your animal control officers, (Utah Division of WIldlife) officials and local health departments to determine if you need the rabies shot after an exposure," she added. "It is lifesaving treatment and the reason why human cases of rabies have decreased so dramatically in the last 100 years."
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of rabies 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 and partial paralysis.
Idaho health officials say exposure to rabies is much more common. They say an estimated 60,000 Americans receive a post-exposure vaccination series annually.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources officials say bats are the most common carrier of rabies in Utah. Bats account for all but two of the 96 confirmed rabies wildlife cases in Utah since 2016. As of September, there were also 59 cases of humans exposed to the virus over the past five years — with the one fatality.
Idaho health officials say 14 bats have tested positive for rabies in their state this year alone. About 11% of 159 bats tested in the Gem State last year also carried the virus.
If anyone in Utah comes in contact with an animal that may have rabies, the agency recommends to "immediately call" your local animal control or DWR office so they can capture the animal for rabies testing. If the incident happens during a weekend, they encourage you to call a nonemergency number for your local police dispatch, which can contact DWR employees.
If the animal cannot be tested, they say it should be presumed that the person who came in contact with the creature was exposed to the virus.
"Immediately visit the Utah Department of Health website to find the nearest location to receive the rabies vaccine (post-exposure prophylaxis)," agency officials wrote in a statement. "Contact your local health department with questions and to report the incident."