The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and Central District Health are reporting the first human case of rabies and subsequent death reported in Idaho since 1978. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the 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.”
In late August, a Boise County man encountered a bat on his property. It flew near him and became caught in his clothing, but he did not believe he had been bitten or scratched. In October, he fell ill and was hospitalized in Boise, where he subsequently died. It was not until after the investigation into his illness began that the bat exposure was discovered.
Public health officials are working closely with the family and healthcare providers. Central District Health is working with the hospital where he was treated to identify people who may have been exposed. Those who had contact with secretions from the individual are being assessed and will be given rabies preventive treatment as needed.
Rabies has the highest mortality rate of any disease. While cases of human rabies in the United States are rare, rabies exposures are common, with an estimated 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. “Every year we have several people and pets exposed to rabies in our district, generally spring through fall,” said Central District Health Communicable Disease Control Program Manager Lindsay Haskell. “We want our residents and visitors to Idaho to be informed of the risk of rabies, to take appropriate steps to limit risk, and to take action when necessary.”
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 because it 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. You cannot tell just by looking at a bat if it has rabies.
Sometimes, the bat is not available for testing; in this case, if there has been a possible exposure, treatment with rabies vaccine and rabies immune globulin may be recommended in case the bat was rabid. 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.
For more information on rabies:
- In Idaho: https://healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/health-wellness/diseases-conditions/rabies
- From the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is dedicated to strengthening the health, safety, and independence of Idahoans. Learn more at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.
Contact: Niki Forbing-Orr
Department of Health and Welfare
Public Information Manager
Central District Health
Public Information Officer