MARTINEZ -- Local health officials reminded the public Friday to seek immediate treatment if bitten by a bat or other wild animal, after releasing additional details about Contra Costa County's first human rabies death in nearly two decades.
The unidentified 34-year-old man, a resident of central Contra Costa, died in Switzerland in July after contracting the disease months earlier and traveling to eight countries while he was potentially infectious, officials said.
The man was likely bitten in March by a variant of the Mexican free-tailed bat that he and an acquaintance came across outdoors in southern Contra Costa County, which includes Alamo, Danville and San Ramon, said Erika Jenssen, Contra Costa Public Heath communicable disease programs chief. The species is common throughout California and Mexico.
The bat was "flapping on the ground and acting weird," and another individual picked it up with a plastic bag, Jenssen said. The acquaintance reported that the victim put his hand in the bag to touch the bat, then pulled back his hand as if he'd been bitten, "but did not discuss this event further or seek medical assistance at the time," according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
His first known symptoms came June 25 when he complained of right arm and shoulder pain and exhaustion while vacationing in Thailand.
The man was the county's first human fatality from the disease since 1993 and the first in California since 2008. In both previous cases, the victims contracted the disease from dog bites they received in Mexico.
The latest victim died in a Zurich hospital July 31, less than a month after he first sought treatment for symptoms in Dubai on July 8.
Health officials are not divulging additional details about where the incident occurred. All the public needs to know, Jenssen said, is that bats are everywhere.
Curtis Fritz, from the California Department of the Public Health, said the state tests 1,000 to 2,000 bats each year, and up to 200 test positive for rabies. In Contra Costa County, between 1 and 10 bats test positive annually, and three have so far this year.
Officials are not releasing the victim's identity, citing his and his family's privacy, and have been tracking down people who may have come in close contact with him to assess whether those individuals are in need of preventive treatment.
Human-to-human transmission of rabies, however, is so rare that the only documented case involves an organ transplant, officials said. Transmission is possible, however, if the saliva or neurological tissue of an infected person comes in contact with the eyes, mouth, nose, genitals, or a break in the skin of an uninfected person, according to Contra Costa Health Services.
Health officials said they identified 59 people who were in close contact with the Contra Costa man, and 23 of those individuals have received post-exposure treatment out of an abundance of caution. Some of those people were on airplanes with the victim: He traveled on eight international flights to six countries from June 11 to July 31 while he potentially was infectious, the Centers for Disease Control said.
Health officials stressed the importance of seeking treatment for potential rabies immediately. When symptoms arise, the disease is almost always fatal. Symptoms include anxiety, confusion, fever, headache and loss of feeling or muscle function, Contra Costa Health Services said.
Treatment for those exposed entails five injections. While in the past it was a painful process, today it's relatively similar to getting a flu vaccine, officials said.
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.