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By Maggie Fox
The symptoms started with a pain in her right arm. The patient, a 65-year-old Virginia woman, went to an urgent care center and got painkillers. There was no hint that she in fact was infected with the world’s deadliest virus and was already destined to die – the price for having played with a puppy in India.
Virginia health officials reported on her case Thursday, along with a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the risk of petting dogs while traveling in many developing countries.
The patient had been on a seven-week-long yoga retreat in India just weeks before. “Tour members confirmed that the patient was bitten by a puppy outside her hotel in Rishikesh, India, and that the wound was washed with water, but no further treatment was administered,” Virginia’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Julia Murphy, and colleagues wrote in their report.
Dog rabies has been eliminated in the U.S. thanks to strict vaccination laws, but the virus is common in many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The virus kills 59,000 people a year globally, according to the CDC. The patient, who was not identified, was infected with a strain of rabies common in dogs in India.
Rabies virus is almost 100 percent fatal once symptoms start. It doesn’t usually show symptoms immediately, so the yoga aficionado traveled home and resumed her normal life without knowing she was infected. Her symptoms were vague at first, and as she sought care over the coming days, she exposed dozens of other people to the virus.
“On May 7 (2017), she was evaluated at hospital A with shortness of breath, anxiety, insomnia, and difficulty swallowing water. The patient expressed concern about exposure to a toxic substance,” Murphy’s team wrote.
“On the evening of May 8, the patient became progressively agitated and combative and was noted to be gasping for air when attempting to drink water. Hospital staff members questioned family about animal exposures, and the patient’s husband reported that she had been bitten on the right hand by a puppy approximately six weeks before symptom onset while touring in India,” the researchers wrote. The difficulty swallowing water, often called hydrophobia, is one of the classic signs of rabies.
With rabies, once symptoms begin, there is almost no hope of a cure. Only two people have ever survived rabies in the U.S., and just a handful globally, all of them treated using a complex approach called the Milwaukee protocol.
The patient’s family tried this approach, which involves a medically induced coma, but she did not improve and she died on May 21, 2017, after medical care was stopped.
Meanwhile, the health department was tracking down anyone who had been in contact with the patient to see if they needed rabies vaccines, including one person bitten by the patient. In the end, 15 were advised to get vaccinated and 72 were offered vaccine. If people are vaccinated after they are exposed to rabies, such as through an animal bite, the vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing illness if given before symptoms begin. It can take weeks and even rarely, months for symptoms to start showing up.
The health team also tracked down everyone who had been on the same yoga retreat.
“Three tour members in addition to the patient reported direct contact with the same puppy; two were determined not to have been exposed to infectious materials. One, a North Carolina resident, reported having been bitten on the leg,” Murphy’s team wrote. The health department recommended vaccination for that person.
In the end, all the vaccines cost $235,000, the department reported. The woman was the ninth to die in the U.S. from rabies acquired since 2008.
It’s a reminder that rabies is a risk in much of the world, the health officials said.
“Travelers to India, which has the world’s largest incidence of dog-mediated human rabies deaths, are recommended to receive pre-travel rabies vaccination if they will be involved in outdoor activities (such as camping, hiking, biking, adventure travel, and caving) that put them at risk for animal bites,” Murphy’s team wrote. “In the case of the yoga retreat tour, given the extended length of the tour and the rural and community activities involved, pre-travel rabies vaccination should have been considered.”
The World Health Organization says dogs are the main source of human rabies deaths. In the U.S., bats are the main source, although raccoons, foxes and other animals can transmit rabies.
“Every year, more than 15 million people worldwide receive a post-bite vaccination,” the WHO says.
How does rabies compare to other viruses? HIV is incurable but can be controlled with drugs. Ebola kills between 20 percent and 70 percent of victims, depending on the strain and what treatment patients get. Marburg virus, a relative of Ebola, can kill up to 90 percent of patients.
Maggie Fox is a senior writer for NBC News and TODAY, covering health policy, science, medical treatments and disease.