Officials trace rabies contacts

The recent death of a Willows man by a case of bat-strain rabies has Glenn County public health officials rushing to vaccinate almost two dozen of his friends and family members, on the extremely rare chance they were exposed to the virus through personal contact with the deceased. A similar number of workers at Enloe and Glenn medical centers may also have to be treated.

Jason Arendell, a 28-year-old rice-dryer worker, died on Easter Sunday at Enloe Medical Center. He had been admitted less than a week prior, complaining of flu-like symptoms. His condition continued to worsen, and he slipped into a coma within a few days. He was taken off life support with the permission of his family.

Rabies, a virus that affects the brain and spinal chord, is generally always fatal if left untreated before symptoms develop.

Officials at the Glenn County Health Services Agency said they didn’t know how Arendell contracted the virus, but since the strain of disease is one generally found only in bats, they surmise that the victim was bitten, perhaps unknowingly, by a rabid bat.

“No one in his family can recall his being bitten or him telling them he was bitten,” agency spokeswoman Grinnell Norton said. A family member did relate to the agency an incident where a bat was found in Arendell’s home, but no one was said to have had any contact with the animal.

Rabies in humans is very rare, causing between one and three deaths each year in the United States, and invariably fatal unless treated early. It has an incubation period of 30-50 days in humans, after which point symptoms begin to develop, which include fever, headache, difficulty swallowing and appetite loss. As the disease takes hold, patients may begin to suffer from convulsions, hallucinations and paralysis.

Most people who contract rabies get it from being bitten by a wild animal. Raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes are all major carriers of the disease. Often, these animals will bite a domesticated dog or cat, whereupon the pet, if it hasn’t been vaccinated, can easily transmit the virus to its owners.

There have been three recorded human rabies deaths in California over the last seven years, all due to exposure to a wild-animal strain. In Glenn County last year, there were nine confirmed cases of animal rabies out of 350 reported in the state. Butte County had a record number of 60 animal rabies cases last year, double that of 2000. This year, though, there have been only two confirmed cases.

Health experts say the chance of getting rabies is extremely remote for most people. The best way to avoid the virus is to avoid contact with wild animals altogether, but if a person is bitten, he or she should wash the wound and seek treatment immediately. Rabies can be prevented by taking a five-shot vaccine course, but it should be administered within a few weeks of exposure. Years ago, the vaccine course involved a series of 21 painful shots given in the abdomen, but today’s vaccine is not quite so grueling.