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MARTINEZ (CBS SF) – Health officials have confirmed that a 34-year-old man’s death in July stemmed from his contact with a rabid bat in Contra Costa County earlier this year.
The Contra Costa County resident, who has not been named, died in a hospital in Switzerland on July 31 while working abroad, months after contracting rabies from a bat in the southern part of the county, county health officials said Friday.
When tests confirmed rabies to be the man’s cause of death, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with local and state health officials launched an investigation that ultimately linked the rabies case to the man’s contact with a bat.
Interviews with the man’s friends and family revealed that in March, he and another person found a bat “flopping around on the ground” while walking in a south Contra Costa County town, county Public Health Communicable Disease Programs Manager Erika Jenssen said at a news conference Friday.
The man’s companion picked up the animal in a plastic bag, and the victim stuck his hand inside the bag. Health officials believe the bat then bit him.
The 34-year-old became sick after leaving the U.S. for work, health officials said.
It is Contra Costa County’s first rabies-related human death in nearly 20 years.
“Tragically, this man died from rabies,” Jenssen said. “To be safe, people should not handle wildlife, especially bats. It’s critical that people who have been bitten by bats or wild animals seek medical attention immediately.”
Most human rabies infections in the U.S. are caused by exposure to rabid bats. While cases of infections in the U.S. are rare, rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms of the illness appear, county Public Health Physician Dr. Nishant Shah said.
Jenssen said human-to-human cases of rabies through saliva is theoretically possible, but has never been documented.
Nonetheless, during the investigation into the rabies-related death, health officials contacted three of the man’s friends and family members who may have had contact with the man’s saliva. Twenty-three people, including those friends and relatives, who encountered the man after his exposure to the bat have received precautionary rabies vaccines, Jenssen said.
Health officials say this case serves as a stark reminder to steer clear of wildlife and to report any animal bite to health authorities as soon as possible.
The public is especially urged to avoid any dead wildlife or wild animals that appear to be sick or acting strangely, as they may be infected with rabies.
Mexican free-tailed bats – the bat species most commonly found in California—typically shy away from human contact, said Curtis Fritz, public health veterinarian with the state Department of Public Health.
“If a bat allows you to approach and touch it, something is wrong,” Fritz said.
Public health officials say they are particularly worried about people who are bitten by bats without realizing it, including cases of those who are bitten in their sleep or while intoxicated.
In Contra Costa County, three bats have tested positive for rabies this year. Last year, 211 of the 223 animals that tested positive for rabies in the state were bats, Fritz said.
Other wildlife such as skunks and raccoons as well as rare cases of dogs and cats account for the other animals that test positive for rabies in California each year, he said.
The last Californian to die from rabies was a Santa Barbara resident in 2008. An investigation determined that he contracted the illness from a rabid dog while in Mexico, Fritz said.
In 1993, a man who traveled to Contra Costa County died after being bitten by a rabid puppy in Mexico, county health officials said.
More information about rabies can be found at cchealth.org/rabies.
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