A 55-year-old southern Missouri man died of rabies Sunday after being bitten by a bat in October, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. The rabies death is the first in the state since 1959.

The man from Texas County was bitten on his left ear by a bat in his home in the first or second week of October. Family members released the bat because it appeared to be flying around and healthy. The man did not report the bite or seek medical treatment, health officials said.

"That proved to be a fatal mistake," said Dr. Howard Pue, state public health veterinarian. "An animal can be rabid and be acting totally normally and yet if it bites you it can give you rabies."

The man became sick on Nov. 19. Rabies can have an incubation period that lasts an average of 40 days before symptoms of fatigue, fever and headache appear. Damage to the nervous system typically appears a week later, with symptoms that can include hallucinations and seizures. Eventually rabies will cause respiratory or cardiac arrest and is fatal if not treated early.

Although rabies is not spread easily from person to person, five people who may have had contact with the man or the bat are now receiving preventive treatment for rabies. Two or three of the people were in the house at the same time as the bat, and another two had close contact with the man.

If you find a bat or other wild animal in your house, state health officials recommend trapping the animal in a room and calling your county public health department. The same goes for dead animals. Never touch a wild animal, living or dead.

Health officials will collect the animal and test it for rabies. If tests come back positive, anyone who may have been in contact with the animal, even unknowingly, will be given a series of anti-rabies shots to prevent infection. Several hundred people in Missouri receive the shots each year.

Most wild animals are not rabid. Fewer than 1 percent of bats in the state have rabies.

"You can't go around killing all the bats and you can't stay shut up in your house all the time, but you have to recognize the risks and take precautions," Pue said.

After doctors suspected rabies in the southern Missouri man, cultures sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta tested positive for the disease. The strain of rabies appeared to come from a silver-haired or eastern pipistrelle bat, health officials said.

Rabies in wild animals is up this year in Missouri. So far in 2008, 55 bats, five skunks and a horse shown at the Missouri state fair in August have tested positive. The state's yearly average for this date is 54 total animals. In May, a bat discovered in a house in Webster Groves tested positive for rabies. Bats are more active in the warmer months but cases of rabies have been found year-round.

Health officials encourage people to vaccinate their pets against rabies and to report any bites by wild or domestic animals to a doctor. Anti-rabies shots can prevent the disease if taken before symptoms start.

For more information, visit www.cdc.gov/rabies/

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Copyright © 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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