(CNN) – A man in northeast Illinois died of rabies about a month after contracting a bat he found in his room. This marked the first human case of the virus in the state since 1954, health officials said Tuesday.
The man, who was in his 80s, woke up last month to find a bat on his neck in his Lake County, Illinois home. After the bat tested positive for rabies, the man declined treatment after exposure, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) said in a press release.
About a month after his exposure, the man suffered from neck pain, headache, numbness in his fingers, difficulty controlling his arms and difficulty speaking, health officials said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the man’s diagnosis on Tuesday after tests in their laboratory.
Wildlife experts found a bat colony in the man’s home, IDPH said.
“Rabies has the highest mortality rate of any disease,” said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike in the press release. “However, there is life-saving treatment for those who seek help quickly after exposure to an animal infected with rabies.”
The rabies virus is transmitted through direct contact with an infected animal, including through saliva or the tissues of the brain and nervous system, according to the CDC. The rabies virus attacks the central nervous system and causes a brain disease that can lead to death if left untreated, the CDC said.
Human rabies infections are rare in the United States, with one to three cases reported each year, IDPH said. Still, an estimated 60,000 Americans receive the post-exposure vaccination series each year.
Illinois health officials warn that although people usually know they have been bitten by a bat, “they have very small teeth and the bite mark may not be easy to see.”
The state health department advises people who come near a bat not to release it until it can be tested for rabies. People are also encouraged to contact their local health authorities who can determine if they have been exposed and what actions are needed.
Most of the rabies cases in the United States come from bats, CDC says
A 2019 CDC report found that bats are the cause of seven out of ten cases of rabies in the United States.
Researchers studied rabies trends in the US over a period of 80 years, from 1938 to 2018. They found that most infections came from dog bites until 1960, when wildlife species – particularly bats – became the main source of human infection. This followed nationwide efforts in the 1950s to mandate pet vaccines and implement leash control laws, the report said.
The number of rabies deaths in the United States was between 30 and 50 per year in the 1940s, but has fallen to one to three deaths per year. That is the result of routine pet vaccination and the availability of post-exposure treatments.
In June, the CDC suspended imports of dogs from more than 100 countries that it believed to be at high risk of rabies. The move affects dog rescue missions, imports from dog breeders and people who bring pets, the CDC said.
The decision was made based on a combination of factors including the coronavirus pandemic, the lack of facilities to safely quarantine dogs and three recent incidents of infected dogs being brought into the country.