Rabies is a high-profile disease and human rabies is exceptionally rare in Canada. While rabies is relatively widespread in wildlife in North America, it’s is rare in domestic animals in Canada, and spillover into people is fortunately rarer still because people have less direct contact with wildlife reservoirs, and because post-exposure prophylaxis is so effective if it is given in a timely manner.
However, the risk is ever-present, as was demonstrated by the recently reported case of rabies in a 21-year-old man from British Columbia, the first human rabies death in Canada since 2012, and only the second case on record in BC (the first case in this province was in 2003).
The man was infected after contact with a bat on Vancouver Island in May. The bat reportedly merely “ran into his hand” so he likely did not realize the risk at the time and did not seek medical attention. But bats have very tiny teeth, and a small puncture wound from a bat bite can be easily overlooked. If there’s little damage from the bite and people don’t know about the rabies risk, the contact may go unreported, as in this case. The encounter only came to light after the young man began to show signs of disease. Rabies is basically 100% preventable of post-exposure prophylaxis is provided, but it’s almost 100% fatal otherwise.
Rabies infections like this are the tragic result of a breakdown in education and communication regarding rabies risk. People need to know when rabies exposure is a concern, to make sure they seek proper medical care. We have a good public health system that’s adept at handling rabies exposure, but it’s all for naught if the exposure isn’t reported. This case highlights the need for ongoing rabies education, despite the rarity of rabies in people in North America.