Human rabies diagnosed in SC for first time in 50 years

COLUMBIA, S.C. (DHEC)-- Health officials have diagnosed South Carolina's first case of human rabies in more than 50 years, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control announced Friday.

"We are deeply saddened to report that a middle-aged woman from Sumter County has contracted the rabies virus," said Eric Brenner, M.D. and medical epidemiologist with DHEC's Bureau of Disease Control. "There are only about one-to-three cases of human rabies each year in this country. Tragically, rabies almost always ends in death."

Dr. Brenner said almost all rabies infections occur as the result of a bite that introduces infected saliva into the fresh wound.

"In this instance, we believe it's likely she was bitten by a bat that entered her home a few months ago," Dr. Brenner said. "The rabies virus travels slowly through the body until it reaches the brain and central nervous system and produces serious initial symptoms including headache, difficulty swallowing, seizures, anxiety, agitation and confusion. Most patients die within a few weeks after the onset of these symptoms."

In adherence with agency procedures, DHEC staff will conduct an investigation to determine if anyone else might have been exposed to the virus. This investigation will include members of the patient's family, friends, co-workers, healthcare providers and others who have been in close contact with her in the weeks before she developed symptoms.

"It is important to note that person-to-person transmission of rabies has never been documented, with the exception of special circumstances in medical settings," Dr. Brenner said. "Exposure to the blood of an infected person is not considered a reason to be treated for rabies."

According to Dr. Brenner, bites from infected bats are one of the most common forms of exposure to humans. Unfortunately, bat bites can be tiny and often go undetected. Other animals in South Carolina that typically can be infected with the virus include raccoons, foxes, skunks and other wild animals. Unvaccinated dogs and cats can also become infected with the rabies virus. South Carolina law requires all dogs, cats, and ferrets to be vaccinated against the rabies virus in order to protect the pets and the people around them.

"If you find a bat inside your home, don't release it outside," Dr. Brenner said. "Do not touch the bat with your bare hands. Trap it under a container and contact your county DHEC environmental health office to have the bat tested for rabies. If the bat is found outside on the ground, don't touch it. And if a pet comes in contact with a bat, the bat should be trapped under a container and you should call your county DHEC environmental health office to have the bat tested for rabies."

The last two confirmed cases of human rabies in SC were in December of 1959 when an elderly Florence County man was bitten by a dog, and in March 1958 when an elderly Clarendon County woman was bitten by a fox.