State's First Rabies In Human Since 1935: Barnstable Man Ill


Rare but life-threatening disease still requires caution

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) today announced that a Barnstable County man in his 60s has been diagnosed with rabies and remains hospitalized in critical condition. The diagnosis was confirmed by testing done at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is the first case of rabies acquired in Massachusetts since 1935 and serves as a reminder that although the risk of rabies is low, the disease still exists in Massachusetts. The Department of Public Health is awaiting confirmation from the CDC regarding the species that infected this Massachusetts resident. Most cases of human rabies occurring in the U.S. have been associated with exposure to bats.

Rabies is a fatal disease that is spread when an animal with rabies bites or comes in very close contact with another animal or person. The rabies virus is carried in the saliva of infected animals. Rarely, infected animals can also spread rabies if their saliva gets into a scratch or other wound or the eyes, nose or mouth of another person or animal. If a person knows that he or she has been exposed to rabies, disease can be prevented in people by administering vaccine and antibodies promptly. There have not been documented cases of human-to-human spread of rabies except in a few cases involving organ transplants.

DPH recommends that if you are bitten or scratched by an animal, wash the wound with soap and water for ten minutes and call your health care provider to determine if you need to be treated for a rabies exposure. Your local animal control officer may be able to help identify the animal for either testing or quarantine.

Because bats can be a source of rabies, if there is direct contact with a bat, or a bat is found in a room with a sleeping person, an unattended young child, a mentally incapacitated person or a pet, the bat should be safely captured and tested for rabies. Directions for safely capturing a bat without touching it are available online at Call your local board of health for help in getting the bat tested for rabies, and call your healthcare provider or DPH at (617) 983-6800 to help you determine if you need to be treated for a rabies exposure.

DPH continues to monitor rabies in bats and land mammals through testing at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain. There are many things people can do to help prevent rabies in Massachusetts.

· Keep your chimney capped and repair holes in attics, cellars, and porches to help keep wild animals like bats and raccoons out of your home.
· Teach children to never approach animals they don’t know – even if they appear friendly.
· Report any animal that behaves oddly to your local animal control official.
· Enjoy wild animals from a distance. Do not keep wild animals as pets. This is against the law in Massachusetts.
· Make sure your pets are vaccinated against rabies. By law, all dogs, cats and ferrets must be regularly vaccinated against rabies.
· Don’t feed food or water to your pets outside. Even empty bowls will attract wild and stray animals.
· Keep your pets in a fenced yard or on a leash and do not let them roam freely.
· Keep your garbage securely covered. Open garbage will attract wild or stray animals.

The control of rabies in dogs in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s virtually eliminated human rabies in this country, although approximately 55,000 people die of rabies annually in other parts of the world. One to three human rabies cases are reported in the United States each year. Most of these cases are a result of exposure to rabid bats in the United States; the rest have been due to exposure to rabid dogs in other parts of the world.

Rabies was first discovered in bats in Massachusetts in 1961. Since that time, approximately 5% of bats tested at the DPH Hinton State Laboratory Institute have tested positive for rabies. Rabies from bats only occasionally spreads to people or other animals.

Raccoon rabies arrived in Massachusetts in 1992. Since then, more than 5,000 animals have tested positive for rabies. Most of these cases occurred in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats, woodchucks and foxes, but every year some pets (especially cats) and farm animals also get rabies. There has only been one reported human case of rabies caused by the raccoon strain in Virginia in 2003.

More information about rabies is available at:

And this from WBUR's Martha Bebinger:

Officials say there is no indication of increased risk of rabies in bats or any other animal populations in the state.

“There’s no reason to believe the risk is any greater now than it has been over the last two decades,” Department of Public Health Director John Auerbach said in a press conference Friday. “We carefully monitor the disease in animals and we haven’t seen any elevated rabies among the animals we’re testing.”

Officials are asking residents to be cautious and seal holes in their homes where wild animals may be able to gain access.

The last confirmed case of rabies that was contracted in Massachusetts was in 1935.

In 1983, a Waltham man died at a Massachusetts hospital after being exposed to rabies, apparently from a dog bite while in Africa.

This program aired on December 30, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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