Public health officials have released details about how a 7-year-old Texas boy died from a rare rabies infection last year.
Although the boy informed his parents that he had been bitten by a bat while playing outside his apartment building, there were no visible bite marks, so the parents did not seek rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). They did not seek medical care until 2 months later when the child developed signs and symptoms, beginning with right hand pruritus and right upper extremity pain.
Despite the use of investigational therapies, the boy died within 22 days of symptom onset and hospitalization, Faisal Minhaj, PharmD, of the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Diseases in Atlanta, and colleagues reported in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
“Bites may not leave detectable puncture marks, and given the high risk of rabies virus transmission from bats, PEP is recommended for any bat contact when a bite or scratch cannot be ruled out,” according to the authors.
Minhaj’s group noted that while dogs more commonly cause rabies in humans, causing an estimated 59,000 cases worldwide annually, bats cause more rabies in the US, accounting for 81.6% of the 38 recorded human infections since the year 2000.
“This case serves as a reminder that rabies virus is still present in the United States and that exposure to bats and other mammalian wildlife should always prompt consultation with public health officials or medical providers,” the authors emphasized, noting that once symptoms begin, rabies is almost always fatal.
The rabies diagnosis was not established for the boy until clinicians learned of the bat bite after several hospital visits.
When the 7-year-old first arrived at a freestanding emergency department (ED) on October 21, 2021, with pain in his right upper arm and an itchy right hand, he was sent home with an oral steroid.
The next day he went to another hospital ED with a rash on his head, right arm and hand. There he was diagnosed with suspected herpes zoster (shingles) and prescribed 5 days of acyclovir, antihistamines and ibuprofen.
On the third day, he returned to the hospital ED with delusions and itching on his forehead. He was given diazepam for the spasms and gabapentin for pain and discharged. Later that day, he returned with nausea, vomiting, fever of 104°F, hypersalivation, and a change in mental status, including confusion and delusions. At that point he was intubated and admitted to the hospital and treated with antimicrobials for central nervous system infection.
Initial tests included cerebrospinal fluid and blood cultures and testing for herpes simplex virus, varicella zoster virus, enterovirus, mycoplasma, Bartonella, Epstein-Barr virus, and cytomegalovirus, all of which were negative.
It was not until the third day after hospital admission, October 25, that the boy was finally tested for rabies after clinicians learned of the bat bite that had occurred 2 months earlier. On October 27, neck skin biopsies and saliva samples confirmed the presence of rabies viral RNA, confirming infection from the rabies virus harbored by the local Mexican free-tailed bat species.
Experimental intrathecal human rabies immune globulin treatment was started on hospital day 7, but the boy nevertheless died in hospital on day 16.
Texas Department of State Health Services followed up and investigated the case and interviewed the family and community contacts to identify any other known exposures. Of the 10 family members interviewed, six who met PEP criteria were treated, as was one additional family member with no known risk.
All residents of the apartment complex where the child lived were contacted by phone and sent an email and a printed rabies advisory. Of the 175 telephone contacts, 124 were successful. Of an additional 46 community members who met exposure criteria, 34 took PEP, most of whom were students participating in the same extracurricular program the boy attended during his infectious period.
Rabies prevention education and rabies risk exposure assessment tools were provided to community area hospitals, and they were alerted to a potential increase in requests for rabies PEP. No additional human rabies exposures or cases were identified as a result of contact with the patient.
A local bat colony was found in the apartment complex and managed by a pest control company.
“It is important to inform animal control or local public health officials when bats build roosts in and around human dwellings. PEP is highly effective and should be administered as soon as possible after an exposure to prevent rabies,” Minhaj and colleagues said. .
No conflicts of interest were disclosed by study authors.