A child in Texas has been hospitalized by rabies that he caught through a bat bite, health officials recently reported — the first documented case of the viral illness within the state in over a decade. Though officials say they’ve contacted other people at risk of having been infected, the current status and prognosis of the child have not been disclosed at this time.
Following infection, rabies (Rabies lyssavirus) invades the nervous system of its hosts. In humans and many other mammals, this invasion causes brain swelling and neurological symptoms like confusion, a pathological fear of water, and the loss of control over bodily functions, including swallowing. This not only tends to make the host unusually aggressive but also allows the virus to become concentrated in the host’s saliva. If all goes well, the host will lash out and bite, scratch, or otherwise infect another animal, starting the cycle all over again.
Some animals, particularly bats, are less likely to get sick or die from carrying rabies. But infections in humans are almost universally fatal once symptoms begin — with death being a slow, excruciating experience according to eyewitness accounts. Thankfully, we have an available vaccine for rabies, which can also be used as a prophylactic in combination with donated antibodies for people recently exposed to the virus who haven’t become sick yet.
The availability of the vaccine, for both humans and their pets, and dedicated animal control programs have made rabies a rarity in richer countries like the United States. But it does occasionally show up since the virus remains in circulation among wildlife. In September, an Illinois man died from the infection following a bat bite, though only after he turned down post-exposure treatment for an unknown reason.
Over the weekend, officials with the Texas Department of State Health Services reported that they were investigating their own case of rabies, the first reported in the state since 2009. The child is a Medina County resident who is currently receiving care in a Texas hospital, officials said. Officials also said that they’ve since reached out to everyone suspected of having been exposed to either the boy or the bat, and are assessing them to determine whether they need vaccination.
In the same announcement, officials added that they would not release any additional information on the child’s case, purportedly to protect their identity. So it’s not clear whether the child is acutely sick with rabies symptoms.
While rabies may be the most lethal disease known once symptoms start, there have been a recorded handful of survivors. These survivors were often treated with something called the Milwaukee protocol, which essentially forces the victim to go into a coma to buy the immune system time to combat the infection. But the reported success rate of the treatment is still low. More recently, doctors in Brazil have developed a modified version known as the Recife Protocol that they argue may be more effective.