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U.S. rabies toll surges to five in 'ordinary year'

ATLANTA, Georgia (Reuters) -- Five people have died during the past three months from rabies, which normally causes only one or two human deaths a year, federal health experts said Thursday.

The five deaths, which occurred in California, Georgia, Minnesota, New York state and Wisconsin, were the first human rabies cases to be diagnosed in the United States since December 1998, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

But Dr. Robert Gibbons of the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases said the recent cases did not represent a new or disturbing trend.

"Five is more than we had last year, when we didn't have any, but human rabies cases are so rare in the United States that I don't think five is anything out of what I would consider an ordinary year," Gibbons said.

"Most of the human rabies cases in the United States do occur in the fall," he said.

Four of the five deaths were due to a rabies virus associated with bats. The fifth involved a resident of Ghana who was bitten by a dog before traveling to the United States, the CDC said.

During the past century, the number of human deaths attributed to rabies has declined from 100 or more each year to an average of one or two each year, the CDC said.

Rabies is always fatal in humans if untreated, the agency said. In the five deaths reported this year, the victims sought medical treatment only after becoming ill.

"If you have direct contact with a bat, you should seek medical attention to determine whether you need to receive rabies vaccination," Gibbons said.

People who have been exposed to the rabies virus, which causes acute encephalitis, can be given a month-long course of treatment to prevent illness. The treatment includes five shots of rabies vaccine and two of immune globulin.

Raccoons accounted for almost 44 percent of the 7,962 cases of animal rabies reported in the United States in 1998, the CDC said, followed by skunks, bats, foxes and other wild animals. The virus is usually transmitted by infected saliva.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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