A woman from Kent County, Delaware has died from rabies, the first such fatality since 1941, according to a wdel.com report. The woman, who lived west of Felton, was taken to a Delaware hospital in late July after becoming ill. She was taken to a Pennsylvania hospital for further treatment and died last week.

The report does not say how she was exposed. “Our hearts go out to this woman’s family during this very difficult time,” Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH) Director Dr. Karyl Rattay said. “Because rabies is a fatal disease once symptoms develop, we urge all Delawareans to ensure they are taking steps to avoid exposure. This is a largely preventable disease.”

Close-up of a dog's face during late-stage "dumb" paralytic rabies/CDC
Close-up of a dog’s face during late-stage “dumb” paralytic rabies/CDC

Rabies is an acute viral infection that is transmitted to humans or other mammals usually through the saliva from a bite of an infected animal. It is also rarely contracted through breaks in the skin or contact with mucous membranes. It has been suggested that airborne transmission is possible in caves where there are heavy concentrations of bats.

According to the Control of Communicable Diseases Manual, all mammals are susceptible to rabies. Raccoons, skunks, foxes, bats, dogs, coyotes and cats are the likely suspects. Other animals like otters and ferrets are also high risk. Mammals like rabbits, squirrels, rodents and opossums are rarely infected.

Initially, like in many diseases, the symptoms are non-specific; fever, headache and malaise. This may last several days. At the site of the bite there may be some pain and discomfort. Symptoms then progress to more severe: confusion, delirium, abnormal behavior and hallucinations. If it gets this far, the disease is nearly 100% fatal.

According to the CDC, the number of rabies-related human deaths in the United States is one or two per year. Modern day prophylaxis has proven nearly 100% successful.

In the United States, human fatalities associated with rabies occur in people who fail to seek medical assistance, usually because they were unaware of their exposure.

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Rabies prevention tips from health officials: 

•         All dogs, cats, and ferrets 6 months of age and older are required by Delaware law to be vaccinated against rabies by a licensed veterinarian. Consider vaccinating livestock and horses as well. It is recommended to consult with your private veterinarian if you have any questions regarding whether your animal(s) should be vaccinated against rabies.
•         Reduce the possibility of your pets being exposed to rabies by not letting them roam free.
•         Spaying or neutering your pet may reduce the tendency to roam or fight and, thus, reduce the chance they will be exposed to rabies.
•         Do not keep your pet’s food or water outdoors; bowls can attract wild and stray animals.
•         Keep your garbage securely covered.
•         Do not touch or otherwise handle wild or unfamiliar animals, including cats and dogs, even if they appear friendly.
•         Wild animals, particularly raccoons and bats, are the highest risk of exposure to rabies. Do not handle or go near wild animals even if they appear approachable.