An Illinois man who woke up with a bat in his bedroom has died of rabies – the state’s first human case of the disease in nearly 70 years, health officials said.
The man in his 80s from Lake County whose name was not released “awoke to a bat on his neck” in mid-August, the Illinois Department of Public Health said Tuesday.
The bat was captured and later tested positive for rabies – and the man was told he needed to start postexposure treatment, but he declined.
One month later, he started having symptoms of the viral disease, including neck pain, headaches, loss of sensation in his fingers, as well as difficulty speaking and controlling his arms.
The Department of Health said it was the state’s first human case of rabies since 1954.
Wildlife experts later found a bat colony in the man’s home. The mammals are the most commonly identified species with rabies in Illinois, health officials said.
“Sadly, this case underscores the importance of raising public awareness about the risk of rabies exposure in the United States,” Lake County Health Department Executive Director Mark Pfister said.
“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.”
While people usually know when they’ve been bitten by a bat, the small mammals have tiny teeth and may leave marks that are difficult to see.
Anyone who finds themselves in close proximity to them and are unsure if they’ve been exposed – such as waking up to find a bat in the room – should try to capture it for rabies testing.
Thirty bats have tested positive for rabies this year in Illinois, where more than 1,000 of them are screened annually, translating to an approximate 3 percent positivity rate, health officials said.
“If the bat is available for testing and the results are negative, preventative treatment is not needed,” according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“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.”
IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said rabies has the highest mortality rate of any disease, but life-saving treatment is available for those who seek care after possible exposure.
Wordwide, rabies causes about 59,000 deaths each year, with about two occurring in the US. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, from 1960 to 2018, the US reported just 125 human rabies cases, 36 of which were attributed to dog bites during international travel. For the 89 infections acquired within the US, 62 were attributed to bats.
“Rabies virus infection, regardless of the variant or animal reservoir, is fatal in over 99% of cases, making it one of the world’s most deadly diseases,” according to the report.
“There is no treatment once signs or symptoms of the disease begin, and the disease is fatal in humans and animals within 1–2 weeks of symptom onset.”
CDC officials confirmed the Illinois man’s diagnosis following testing at its lab, the state’s Department of Public Health said. Just 1 to 3 human cases are identified annually, although an estimated 60,000 Americans get post-exposure treatment each year, the state agency said.
“The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death,” health officials said. “Without preventive treatment, rabies is typically fatal.”