A 55-year-old Utah man has become the state’s first rabies fatality since 1944 after a weeks-long struggle with the infection that first presented as neck and back pain. Gary Giles, of Maroni, died on Sunday after a series of medical tests and transfers landed him in the intensive care unit at Intermountain Medical Center.
Giles’ widow, Juanita, said that the pair frequently allowed bats to land on their hands and lick their fingers because they didn’t know that they were infected with rabies. She told KSL.com that she has woken up in the night to find them walking on the couple’s bed.
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“The bats never hurt us, and we were always catching them in our hands and releasing them outside because you hear all the time and how bats are good for the insect population, and you don’t want to hurt them,” she told KSL.com. “The bats would lick our fingers, almost like they could taste the saltiness of our fingers, but they never bit us.”
But on Oct. 19, Giles landed in the emergency room with intense back and neck pain, which was diagnosed as a potentially pulled muscle. According to a GoFundMe page, his symptoms progressed to numbness and tingling in his arms, which led to muscle spasms. He was reportedly transferred to the ICU after he began reacting poorly to the medication. He was eventually intubated and sedated, with later brain scans revealing that he was experiencing multiple seizures every hour.
According to his obituary, Giles died surrounded by his family. The Utah Department of Health confirmed a rabies-linked death in the state.
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A state epidemiologist warned about the dangers of being around bats.
“If you find yourself near a bat, dead or alive, do not touch, hit or kill it,” Dallin Peterson told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Call your health care provider or local public health department immediately to report the possible exposure and determine whether preventative treatment is necessary.”
Rabies is a preventable viral disease of mammals most often transmitted through the bite of an infected animal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the vast majority of cases occur in wild animals like raccoons, skunks, and foxes. The virus affects the central nervous system and may first present as fever, headache, weakness or discomfort. Symptoms can then advance to insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing and fear of water. Death typically occurs within days of the advanced symptoms.