A Marylander has died of rabies for the first time since 1976, state health officials said Tuesday. It is not yet known how the person contracted the virus, which is found in animals across the state.
Officials are exploring how and where the person was exposed to the virus and assessing the risk of rabies exposure to those who had direct contact with the individual. That risk is thought to be minor, as rabies is usually passed through a bite from an infected animal.
Health officials are not releasing any further details on the individual, citing privacy reasons.
Human rabies cases have grown exceedingly rare in recent years. Over the past 10 years, fewer than five cases have occurred in the U.S. annually. The deadly disease, which can cause drooling, convulsions, fever and muscle spasms, is prevented in humans through a prophylactic injection of rabies antibodies and a series of vaccines soon after exposure occurs.
The treatment is considered highly effective and is almost always known to prevent rabies cases in humans.
About 1,000 Marylanders receive preventive treatment for rabies each year, said Katherine Feldman, state public health veterinarian. It typically takes one month to three months for symptoms to appear after a person is exposed to the virus, which is transmitted through saliva and travels through the nervous system, she said.
Once symptoms appear, death from respiratory failure usually occurs within a week, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
"We recommend people to seek treatment as soon as they can," Feldman said. "It's important to report any animal bite."
Rabies is still often found in animals. Last year, 324 cases were detected among animals in Maryland, two-thirds of them in raccoons. About 18 percent of cases were in bats, with smaller numbers in skunks, foxes and cats.
Dogs and cats are required to be immunized for rabies under Maryland law, but unvaccinated pets can become infected and pass the virus to their owners.
Rabies can be passed through saliva even if an animal is not showing symptoms, Feldman said. In the case of dog or cat bites, health officials typically monitor the animal for 10 days to see if rabies treatment is needed. With wild animal bites, if the creature cannot be tested for rabies, preventive treatment is given, she said.