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In Wake of Md. Rabies Death, Officials Check Hundreds for Disease

Update Date: Mar 18, 2013 01:41 PM EDT

In the wake of a Maryland man's death from rabies, officials are undergoing assessments to prevent another death.

"Rabies is a viral disease that kills wild animals, pets, and humans," nurse practitioner Debra Hoehn said to the Daily Journal Online. "When left untreated, it is almost always fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rabies kills 55,000 people every year."   

The Maryland man was the first rabies death in the state since 1976. Officials concluded that he became infected with rabies after an organ donation. He received a kidney from an organ donor in Florida, whose brain tests reveal that he had the disease as well.

According to Access North Georgia, public health officials are carrying out investigations in five states. In Maryland, 200 health workers were assessed for their level of risk of carrying the illness. Fewer than 24 people were asked to receive the rabies vaccine as a preventative measure. Health officials from Georgia and North Carolina are also involved with the investigation.

In Florida, 90 people were identified as having been potentially exposed to the illness. As of Friday, three people were administered the vaccine. In Illinois, only the person who received the infected organ is being given the vaccine.

None of the other recipients of the organs have displayed symptoms of rabies, so experts say that it is likely that they will survive.

Officials are still attempting to determine how the donor became infected with rabies. Described as an outdoorsman, experts believe that it is possible that he was infected after being bitten by a wild animal in his native North Carolina. Afterwards, he moved to Florida to train as an Air Force aviation mechanic about four months before his death.

Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said that the organ donor died of a severe gastroentitis inflammation in his stomach and small intestine, which was complicated by dehydration, electrolyte abnormalities and a seizure. The Florida Department of Health says that he died of encephalitis. Encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, can be caused by a number of factors, including rabies. Regardless, the organ donor was not tested for these causes before his organs were harvested.

It is rare that rabies is transmitted through organ donation. There have been eight documented cases of the disease being transmitted through transplanted corneas.

In addition, as the weather heats up, officials warn all people to exercise caution for the disease, the Daily Journal Online states. The first step to protecting yourself is to protect your pet by getting him vaccinated and neutered in order to reduce aggression, as well feeding her indoors. In addition, avoid wild animals and, if you see any behaving oddly, call your local animal control.

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