For more than five decades, Taiwan was rabies-free–that was until 2013 when the lethal virus reappeared in a Formosan ferret-badger.

Taiwan map/CIA
Taiwan map/CIA

Now the Taiwanese news source, Focus Taiwan reports  a 79-year-old woman from Meishan Township in Chiayi County was bitten by a ferret-badger that was later found to be infected with rabies.

This is the first rabies case seen in the mountainous township since 2013.

According to the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine, the elderly woman was attacked by the animal on her property. She was given rabies post exposure prophylaxis.

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.

Rabies cases have been reported in 72 townships in 9 counties and cities around Taiwan since 2013, the bureau said. The disease has been confined mainly to wild ferret-badgers, with only a few cases involving masked palm civets.

Rabies infected animals can appear very aggressive, attacking for no reason. Some may act very tame. They may look like they are foaming at the mouth or drooling because they cannot swallow their saliva. Sometimes the animal may stagger (this can also be seen in distemper). Not long after this point they will die. Most animals can transmit rabies days before showing symptoms.

Initially, like in many diseases, the symptoms of rabies 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.

Human rabies is prevented by administration of rabies vaccine and rabies immune globulin.