SALT LAKE CITY — A Moroni man has died from rabies, the first death of its kind in Utah since 1944.
Gary Giles, 55, died Sunday, but struggled for weeks with a slowly progressing disease that doctors couldn't stop from infecting his brain and other organs, ultimately leading to his death.
He and his wife, Juanita Giles, didn't realize that the bats that had frequented their home were carriers of a rabid and highly contagious virus.
"The bats never hurt us, and we were always catching them in our hands and releasing them outside because you hear all the time about how bats are good for the insect population, and you don't want to hurt them," Giles said Thursday.
"The bats would lick our fingers, almost like they could taste the saltiness of our fingers, but they never bit us."
Gary Giles first had neck and back pain and went to the local emergency room on Oct. 19. He was sent home with steroids and other pain management treatment for a potential pulled muscle, his wife said; but that turned into numbness and tingling, and, eventually, wheezing. Juanita Giles called 911 and he was taken by ambulance to another local emergency room.
He was again transported to Utah Valley Hospital, and then taken to the intensive care unit at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, where he died.
"It's very scary and it is creating a bit of a panic," Giles said, adding that she is getting rabies vaccinations — a series of four shots over two weeks — just in case. Other family members are also getting vaccinated, though the supply of the very expensive vaccine is limited within the state.
She wants others to be aware of the risk.
"I had no clue," Giles said. "We would wake up in the night and they would be walking on our bed."
"I've always thought bats were kind of cute, but I had no idea the kind of risk we were at."
A fundraising page has been set up to help the family deal with the loss.
"My dad has always been a giver," said Crystal Sedgewick, Giles' daughter who set up the page. "During the final 24 hours that he was still able to speak with us, he was in a delusional state, and he still couldn't stop talking about all the people that he needed to help and favors that he had yet to follow through with."
She said it has always been difficult for the family to ask for or accept anything.
"The only favor that I ask of everyone," she said, "is that you take the time to tell those that you love how much they mean to you. This is a very unexpected tragedy for our family. And what I wouldn't give to turn back time to show my love more."
Bats are the most common source of rabies in Utah, Utah Department of Health epidemiologist Dallin Peterson said. He said a bite or scratch from a bat may not be felt because a bat's teeth and claws are very small.
The disease, as is likely with the case of Gary Giles, can also be transmitted via an infected animal's saliva.
Rabies, though very rare, Peterson said, is nearly always fatal once symptoms develop. The last deadly case in Utah was 74 years ago.
After exposure to an infected animal, Peterson said it can take three to 12 weeks for symptoms to show up. From there, it can be less than a week until a person is in a coma. A person usually has some time before it is necessary to get the post-exposure prophylaxis vaccination.
"Once (the infection) gets into the central nervous system, it advances quickly," Peterson said. "It's a terrible way to pass away."
Between 150 and 200 bats are submitted to the Utah Department of Health every year to be tested. Migratory bats are found all over the state, most frequently along the Wasatch Front. A hibernating type of bat is also found in some local national parks, where they live long-term.
"They like nooks and crannies or caves, dark areas or attics," Peterson said.
So far this year, 14 bats tested by the health department have been found to have rabies. The state averages 20 to 25 positive rabies tests each year.
In the fall of 2017, bat infestations were found at West and Layton high schools. Because bats are endangered, they could not be killed, but were dealt with by a professional.
No one was harmed in that process, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, which offers education on bats and other wild animals, commissioned houses to attract the bats to areas outside of the school. Because, Peterson said, they always return to familiar spaces.
Giles said she hired someone to come to her home and find where the bats were getting inside. She will seal it off to prevent problems in the future, but was told the bats were seeking out a warm space, near the furnace in her home.
Anyone exposed to bats, especially bats that exhibit odd behavior, should seek medical help to rule out any risk, Peterson said.
"If you find yourself near a bat, dead or alive, do not touch, hit or kill it," he said. "Don't touch bats. Period."
While no human-to-human transmission has been documented outside of organ transplantation, he said it is "theoretically possible" to spread rabies through contact with bodily fluids such as saliva and tears, as well as cerebrospinal and respiratory tract fluids.
Rabies is not found in urine, blood, serum or feces.
Peterson said the health department hasn't yet confirmed that the Utah man died from exposure to an infected bat, but a Center for Disease Control and Prevention laboratory in Atlanta is working to detect the species and results are pending.
An estimated 40,000 people in the United States who might not be up-to-date on vaccinations get preventive treatment for rabies after a bite or scratch from a dog or cat. The Utah Department of Health advises keeping up on rabies vaccinations for all domestic animals, not only for the sake of human owners, but to avoid the heartache of unnecessarily euthanizing or treating pets.
The health department advises people to not approach wild animals or strays, which can also carry the highly contagious and fatal viral disease.10 comments on this story
Domestic animals with rabies may exhibit behavior changes, general sickness, trouble swallowing, increased drool or saliva and biting at everything.
Peterson said human rabies cases are "a rare ordeal," but, it can happen. The CDC reports one to two cases nationally each year.
There is no increased risk of infection to the public and the health department is continuing its investigation into Giles' death.
For more information on rabies, call the health department at 801-538-6191 or visit health.utah.gov/epi/diseases/rabies.