Virginia health officials investigating rare case of human rabies in Central Virginia

Katie O’Connor with the Richmond Time-Dispatch wrote this article published May 12, 2017.

After being bitten by a dog while traveling in India, a central Virginia resident has a confirmed case of human rabies, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The department declined to share any additional information about the patient, citing privacy concerns.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, human rabies is almost always fatal.

“Once symptoms appear in a person, that person’s prognosis is poor,” said Julia Murphy, state public health veterinarian with the VDH. “That’s why we emphasize the importance of prompt reporting of exposures.”

Health providers can intervene with a vaccine before a person becomes symptomatic, Murphy said. There has not been a vaccine failure in the U.S. since the 1980s.

Cases of human rabies are extremely rare in the U.S.; only 1 to 3 cases are reported annually.

The last time the VDH reported a case was in 2009, when another patient was bitten by a dog in India. That person died, Murphy said.

Health officials are assessing — “out of an abundance of caution,” Murphy said — those who had direct contact with the central Virginia patient, such as family members or health care workers, to determine if they have been exposed.

“The only documented case of human-to-human transmission has been via organ transplantation,” she said.

According to the CDC’s website, the symptoms of rabies are very similar to the flu, with general weakness, discomfort, fever and headaches.

Symptoms could progress to anxiety, confusion and agitation, and eventually to delirium, hallucinations and insomnia.

Rabies is a vaccine-preventable disease, and Murphy said anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to rabies should seek medical attention.

“Virginia is rabies endemic — you don’t have to travel internationally to be exposed,” she said. “If a person in Virginia is bitten by an animal, we ask them to take certain precautions like washing the wound thoroughly with lots of soap and water, try to identify the animal, then alert someone — particularly in the local health department.”