The US had the most rabies deaths in a decade in 2021

Three species of bats A) Eptesicus fuscus (great brown bat), B) Lasionycteris noctivagans (silver-haired bat), and C) Tadarida brasiliensis (Mexican free-tailed bat) implicated in three of the US 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 U.S. last year, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows, with at least five people dying from the viral disease in 2021. Rabies can be transmitted to humans through infected animals and is nearly always fatal without prompt treatment after exposure.

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

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

Another death was involved in a young boy in texas, who was hospitalized in November after coming into contact with a bat. In the third case, a man in Idaho did not recognize the need for rabies treatment after encountering a bat, believing it had not been bitten or scratched.

Rabies is a terrifying viral infection that targets the brain and spinal cord. Depending on the route of exposure, it can take weeks to months for symptoms to appear, during which time post-exposure prophylaxis can almost always prevent illness and death. However, once people start to feel sick there is very little that can be done, and those cases are almost always fatal. Although it is now rare in many parts of the world, many wild mammals carry the virus, including bats, as a result of animal control and canine vaccination programs. In the US today, only about one to three cases of rabies are reported annually, and the 2021 total is the highest seen since 2011.

Unfortunately, one of the deaths involved a man who received post-exposure treatment but likely failed to respond due to undocumented problems with his immune system, the AP said. The fifth death involved someone who was bitten by a rabid dog while traveling in the Philippines and later died in New York.

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

While rabies remains a rare problem in the US, the report notes that some cautious steps can be taken to further reduce the risk. People should be aware that bats can carry rabies and avoid contact with them, the authors say, and if they come into close contact with a bat, they should try to catch it for testing. People should also be evaluated for treatment promptly after exposure to a bat or wildlife, and treated if rabies cannot be ruled out.

Unfortunately, while these treatments are life-saving, they can priceless, costs thousands even with insurance.

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