US Deaths From Rabies in 2021 Reached Highest Number in a Decade

By author of The Realblog with Stephanie Mallory

Three of the five people who died from the disease were infected by bats

In 2021, rabies took the life of five people in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it’s the highest number of deaths from the disease in a decade.

According to The New York Times, direct contact with a bat resulted in three of those deaths, including that of a 7-year-old child. The deaths occurred in Idaho, Illinois, and Texas over a five-week period beginning in September. The victims experienced symptoms three to seven weeks after contact with bats and died two to three weeks after the onset of symptoms.

The rabies virus is usually transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal via a bite. Although it has one of the highest mortality rates of any disease, rabies is preventable with a vaccine that is almost 100% effective if taken before symptoms appear. Approximately 59,000 people die from rabies around the world each year. In the U.S., however, death from rabies is extremely rare; in fact, there were no rabies deaths in 2019 and 2020.

According to the CDC, four of the five people who died in late 2021 did not get the vaccine. Two of the victims didn’t take the vaccine either because they didn’t notice a bite or scratch or they were unaware of the risk of catching rabies from bats. The man who did receive the vaccine had a weakened immune system that didn’t respond to the treatment.

“The most important thing that we wanted people to take away from this report is that it is a reminder about how dangerous having direct contact with bats can be,” said Amber Kunkel, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer for the CDC.

In the early 1900s, each year more than 100 people would die from the disease in the U.S. Since 1960, the number of human deaths from rabies has fallen to one or two per year thanks to pet vaccinations, animal control programs, and public health awareness programs. Also, the rabies vaccine for humans became more available.

“We have come a long way in the United States toward reducing the number of people who become infected each year with rabies,” Ryan Wallace, a veterinarian and rabies expert at the CDC, said in a statement, “but this recent spate of cases is a sobering reminder that contact with bats poses a real health risk.”

If you come in contact with a bat, or if a bat has entered your home and it’s unclear if someone came in contact with it, call local health officials for guidance. Each year approximately 60,000 people receive rabies vaccines.

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