A Fremont County woman died Saturday in Utah one day after testing positive for rabies.
It was the first confirmed human rabies case ever recorded in Wyoming.
Officials say the 77-year-old Lander resident contracted rabies after suffering a bat bite Aug. 21 in Fremont County. She began showing symptoms Sept. 18 and went to SageWest Health Care at Lander for treatment early the following week.
She was transferred early last week to a hospital in the Salt Lake City area, where she died.
Officials declined to identify the woman, and her family members said other family had not been notified of her death as of Tuesday afternoon.
The case is believed to be the first case of human rabies ever identified in Wyoming, as well as the first fatality. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, it could be the first human rabies death in the nation since 2013.
Public health officials are interviewing people who have had contact with the woman to determine whether anyone else is in danger of contracting the virus, which is spread through saliva, tears, sputum and spinal fluid.
"We've completed around 20 interviews," Wyoming Depart-ment of Health public health veterinarian Karl Musgrave said Tuesday. "About half of those (people) have started the rabies shots."
He said two of the woman's family members and one person on the medical staff at the hospital in Utah have received post-exposure rabies vaccinations as a precaution.
"We are acting really fast to identify the people who need shots," Musgrave said.
The situation is not considered an emergency at this point: It can take months for symptoms to develop after someone has been exposed to rabies, Musgrave said, and vaccinations are effective at any point before symptoms arise.
Rabies symptoms often involve neurological abnormalities, behavioral changes and mental deficiencies; Musgrave said victims also may experience weakness or paralysis.
Most people do not receive pre-exposure rabies vaccinations unless they have a higher risk of encountering the virus, he noted.
"(Pre-exposure vaccination is) more for veterinarians or animal control workers and wildlife biologists," Musgrave explained.
Musgrave said the woman likely was exposed to the rabid bat while she was sleeping. He said a family member wearing gloves captured the animal and released it outside after it was discovered in the room.
Family members examined the woman for bite marks at the time, Musgrave said, but no marks were detected.
"That's not unusual," he added. "Bats can bite people and not leave a mark."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone who wakes up to discover a bat in the room should contact a medical professional immediately to determine whether a post-exposure rabies vaccination would be appropriate.
Fewer than 1 percent of bats have rabies, Musgrave said, but bats that display unusual activity --like flying inside or having physical contact with humans --are more likely to be rabid.
Each year, Musgrave sad, 15-20 people in Wyoming are bitten by bats and undergo post-exposure rabies vaccination. It is unusual for humans to develop symptoms and die of the virus, however.
"Human rabies is really rare ... because there is so much effort to identify people that need the rabies shots," he said Tuesday. "If we didn't have those efforts in place, we'd have a lot more human rabies."
Most of the recorded human rabies deaths over the past several years have been due to bat exposure, Musgrave said. He stressed the importance of vaccinating pets against rabies.
"These bats can also bite dogs, cats and other animals," Musgrave said. "Once you have a pet with rabies, they can really spread it to a lot of other humans and animals, and then you have a big problem."
To help prevent rabies exposure, people should enjoy wildlife such as bats and skunks from a safe distance.Animal bites should be treated with soap and water, and medical professionals should be contacted immediately after someone suffers a bite.
Anyone who finds a bat in a room should contact a medical professional immediately --bats have such small teeth that even unknown or minor contact with bats has led to rabies infection.
Never adopt wild animals or bring them into the home. Do not try to nurse sick or injured animals --call animal control for help. Tell city or county animal control departments about animals acting strangely.
Teach children not to approach unfamiliar dogs, cats or wildlife, even if the animals appear friendly.
Vaccinate dogs, cats, ferrets, horses and other selected livestock for rabies, and keep vaccinations up-to-date. Keep pets under supervision or on a leash to minimize contact with wild animals.
For more information, call the WDH at 777-7656.