- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

A Northern Virginia man has died from rabies infection, the state’s first fatal case in nearly five years, the Virginia Department of Health announced yesterday.

The man, 25, died in mid-March, but the diagnosis wasn’t confirmed until Wednesday by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The man, whom health officials have not identified, was hospitalized in mid-February with flulike symptoms. Rabies was not initially suspected.

The health department will not say where in Northern Virginia the man was from, or when he died. But Lucy Caldwell, a department spokeswoman, said health officials are now working with people who had been in close contact with him.

The health department also is trying to determine how the man got rabies, a disease that Mrs. Caldwell said a person can have without knowing it.

“It is unclear at this time how the patient acquired the rabies virus,” said Robert B. Stroube, the state’s health commissioner. “We know that the majority of human rabies cases in the United States since 1990 have occurred from contact with rabid bats, and we are working closely with the local health department and local physicians to investigate this case.”

Suzanne Jenkins, assistant epidemiologist for the state health department, said that while it may be nearly impossible to determine how the man contracted rabies, he may have been bitten by a silver-haired bat.

“I met with the family, and he did not have a lot of animal contact and was not the outdoors type,” Miss Jenkins said. “A silver-haired bat’s bite is like a tiny prick. It’s possible the man could have reached in pile of leaves covering a sick bat and never known he was bitten, but that’s just an educated guess.”

Miss Jenkins said test results will determine the type of rabies the man died from. The results should be ready sometime next week.

The number of human deaths attributed to rabies in the United States over the last century has declined from 100 or more each year to an average of one or two each year, according to CDC officials.

The last human death from rabies in Virginia was in December 1998 when a male prisoner died at the Nottoway Correctional Center. That was the first fatal case of rabies in Virginia since 1953. His infection was attributed to an exposure to a bat.

Raccoons, skunks and foxes are the most likely to carry the disease. Other animals that can spread the virus are bats, bobcats, cows, groundhogs and sheep.

Rabies is a disease of the central nervous system that is almost always fatal in animals and humans once symptoms appear. A rabid animal is either so passive it can be approached and touched by a human being or so agitated that it will attack anything or anyone it sees.

Anyone who may have been exposed to the virus should see a doctor to begin a five-shot vaccination program to prevent the symptoms from appearing, health officials said. About 600 persons nationally get rabies treatments every year after being bitten by animals.

Health officials said those who may have had casual contact with a patient who has rabies are not at risk of becoming infected.

“There are no documented cases of human-to-human transmission of rabies through body fluids in the United States,” Mr. Stroube said. “As a precaution, however, post-exposure treatment should be considered for people who had exposure to the patient’s saliva. We will assist the local health department in determining which, if any, of those individuals need to be vaccinated.”

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