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A Man Died From Rabies In Illinois. Here's Why That's So Unusual In The U.S.

Rabies is a preventable viral disease. Human fatalities are rare and typically occur in people who don't get treatment quickly. Here, a vial and box of rabies vaccine.
Adriana Adie
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NurPhoto via Getty Images
Rabies is a preventable viral disease. Human fatalities are rare and typically occur in people who don't get treatment quickly. Here, a vial and box of rabies vaccine.

Be aware if you've got bats in your home. That's the message from the Illinois Department of Health as it announced that an 80-year-old man died of rabies after waking up to find a bat on his neck. It is the first human case of rabies in the state since 1954.

The man refused rabies treatment at the time of the incident in mid-August, health officials said in a press release. A month later, he started experiencing rabies symptoms such as neck pain, headache, difficulty controlling his arms, finger numbness and difficulty speaking.

Rabies infections in humans are extremely rare in the United States, since the disease is preventable and treatable. Typically one to three cases are reported each year, and there were no cases reported in 2019, according to the most recent data available from the CDC.

But rabies exposure is far more common; 60,000 Americans receive the post-exposure treatment every year. Without prompt treatment, though, the virus infects the nervous system and is typically fatal.

Lake County Health Department Executive Director Mark Pfister said the case of the man who died this week emphasizes the need for more public health awareness of the risks of rabies.

"Rabies infections in people are rare in the United States; however, once symptoms begin, rabies is almost always fatal, making it vital that an exposed person receive appropriate treatment to prevent the onset of rabies as soon as possible," Pfister said.

Illinois health officials say bats are the most common animal found with rabies in the state. The man who died had a colony of bats living in his home.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.

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