ST. GEORGE – Public health officials believe the recent death of a Moroni man was caused by rabies, making it the first fatal case in Utah involving the disease since 1944.
The Utah Public Health Department confirmed Thursday that the death of 55-year-old Gary Giles was likely caused by rabies. Health officials believe the source of his infection to have been a bat.
They warn that potential exposure to rabies should be treated very seriously as the infection is often fatal once symptoms appear.
Giles’ daughter Crystal Sedgwick, who set up a GoFundMe account to help cover medical and funeral expenses, said her father had begun to feel back pain around mid-October.
Giles saw a chiropractor and that relieved some of the pain, but then it became much worse.
He was taken to a hospital emergency room for numbness and tingling in his arms that was believed to be caused by inflammation. Giles was treated with steroids, which had a negative effect.
He was transferred to another hospital where he was intubated and sedated in preparation for medical tests, Sedgwick wrote. The results of those tests came back normal.
“This was incredibly aggravating to the doctors and to our family,” Sedgwick wrote. “We took him off of all of his sedatives on the 25th…it was time for him to wake up…only he didn’t wake up. We were told on the 26th that he was in a coma.”
Further testing revealed Giles had experienced seizures. While the seizures were eventually stabilized, continued testing showed a “slow but steady deterioration” of Giles’ condition.
“The doctors no longer feel that there is anything that they can do to help him, and our family has had to make the very hard decision to have him removed from life support,” Sedgwick wrote. “To say that we’re heartbroken would be an understatement.”
The family is hoping to raise $100,000 to cover the medical and funeral costs. As of Friday morning the GoFundMe account has raised $7,000.
Sedgwick told Fox 13 News it wasn’t until after her father’s death that they learned he may have contracted rabies.
Rabies information and prevention
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death. The early symptoms of rabies in people are similar to those of many other illnesses, including fever, headache and general weakness or discomfort. As the disease progresses, more specific symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, increase in saliva, difficulty swallowing and fear of water. Death usually occurs within days of the onset of symptoms.
In Utah, people and animals are most likely to come into contact with rabies through exposure to bats. Because a bat’s teeth and claws are so small, a bat bite or scratch may not be seen or felt by the injured person.
Anyone who is bitten by a bat, has bare skin contact with a bat, or has other potential contact with a bat, such as waking up in a room with a bat, should contact their health care provider or local health department for advice on whether to seek treatment to prevent rabies.
“Rabies vaccine is very effective when given soon enough.” David Blodgett, of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said. “Every year, dozens of people in our district are vaccinated after actual or suspected exposure to rabid animals. Once a person shows symptoms, the disease is nearly always fatal.”
Earlier this year a Washington County man was potentially exposed to rabies, which prompted a public warning from the Southern Utah health officials.
“This isn’t unusual,” David Heaton, a spokesman for the health department, previously told St. George News. “(Approximately) 90 percent of the suspected rabies exposure cases in the county come from bats.”
A person may contract rabies through a bite, scratch or saliva from the infected animal.
While the majority of suspected rabies cases in the county have come from bats, other animals that can be infected include coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks. Domesticated cats and dogs can also get infected, though these cases aren’t as common due to vaccinations.
Animals usually become rabid from the bite of an infected bat.
How to recognize if an animal is rabid
Although some animals with rabies look and act normal, most develop one of two forms of the disease: “Furious rabies,” in which the infected animal is easily excited or angered, and “dumb rabies,” in which the infected animal becomes paralyzed. Usually animals infected with rabies become irritable, restless and nervous.
The only way to tell if an animal has rabies is to kill it in a humane manner and test its brain for the virus.
“Do not kill the animal with a blow or a shot to the head, as this may make it difficult to perform laboratory tests on the brain to determine whether the animal has rabies,” Blodgett wrote in a 2017 article on rabies. “If the animal is dead, put it on ice or in a refrigerator to preserve it for testing. Heat and freezing can make the test unreadable.”
Tips for avoiding infection
Back off and don’t touch any wild animal that lets you get close to it or seems sick. Parents are advised to keep an eye on their children when outdoors so they don’t get too curious and too close to a potentially rabid animal.
Seek immediate medical care if you’ve been bitten by any animal. If the animal can be contained or captured without further injury to yourself or others, do so. It can then be tested for rabies to determine if you should receive rabies shots.
Seek immediate medical attention if you may have been exposed to an animal suspected of having rabies, even if you’re unsure you were bitten. If you have physical contact with a bat or awaken to find a bat in the room, assume you’ve been bitten.
Consultation with a doctor and the health department can determine if vaccinations are a good idea based on the circumstances of your situation.
Vaccinate your pets against rabies.
Get more information on the Southwest Utah Public Health Department’s website.