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Idaho man died from rabies infection after exposure to bat

State and Central District Health officials say the man was exposed on his Boise County property in August, and was hospitalized in October.

BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and Central District Health on Thursday reported the first deadly case of rabies in a person in Idaho since 1978.

IDHW said in a news release that in late August, a Boise County man encountered a bat on his property, and that the bat became caught in his clothing. However, he did not believe he had been bitten or scratched.

That man, whose name isn't being released, fell ill in October and died while hospitalized in Boise.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the rabies diagnosis after testing at its lab.

"This tragic case highlights how important it is that Idahoans are aware of the risk of rabies exposure," said State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn. "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."

Central District Health is working with the hospital where the man was treated to identify people who may have been exposed. Those who had contact with secretions from him are being assessed and will be given rabies preventive treatment as needed.

While cases of human rabies in the United States are rare, rabies exposures are common, with about 60,000 Americans receiving the post-exposure vaccination series each year. The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. Without preventive treatment, rabies is almost always fatal. 

"Idahoans are reminded that bats can become infected with rabies. 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.

Bats are the most commonly identified species with rabies in Idaho.

People usually know when they have been bitten by a bat, but bats have very small teeth and the bite mark may not be easy to see.

If you have contact with a bat or wake up to a bat in your bedroom, tent, or cabin, and are not sure if you were exposed, do not release the bat. Instead, IDHW advises that the bat should be "appropriately captured for rabies testing."

If the bat is available for testing and the results are negative, preventive treatment is not needed. The only way rabies can be confirmed in a bat is through laboratory testing.

In cases where the bat is not available for testing, treatment with rabies vaccine and rabies immune globulin may be recommended in case the bat was rabid. 

Idaho Health and Welfare advises you to call your doctor or local health department to help determine if you could have been exposed to rabies and whether you need preventive treatment.

Fourteen bats have tested positive for rabies in Idaho so far during 2021. During 2020, 11 percent of the 159 bats that were tested were positive for rabies.

More information on rabies is available on the Idaho Health and Welfare and CDC websites.

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