A B.C. man has died of rabies in the first such case Canada has seen in seven years, and the province’s health officer is warning people that, while it’s rare, rabies nearly always kills when symptoms show up.
“Unfortunately, with rabies, once the symptoms start, it is nearly universally fatal,” provincial health officer Bonnie Henry told Global News.
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The man in question died after he came into contact with a bat on Vancouver Island in the middle of May and didn’t show any symptoms until six to eight weeks later.
The incident marked the 26th rabies death in Canada since 1924 and the second known case in British Columbia.
It was the first to happen in seven years after a death was recorded in Ontario in 2012, when a patient was exposed to the disease outside the country, according to the federal government.
Rabies is described as a rare disease caused by a virus that inflames the brain and the spinal cord.
The virus usually enters the body through saliva and makes its way through nerves to the central nervous system, said a 1988 history of the disease in Canada.
The infection first takes place in the spinal cord and spreads to the brain.
The disease’s incubation period can last anywhere from 20 to 60 days, with symptoms that can include chills, fatigue, anxiety, anorexia, headache, insomnia and irritability, said a 2000 study out of the University of Pennsylvania.
Once those symptoms show, the disease can kill in as little as a week, according to the feds.
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Rabies infections have been seen in numerous animals in Canada.
The disease has been detected in bats across the country — that’s the “only reservoir” for the disease in B.C., Henry said.
“When people have exposure to bats, whether it’s a bite or a scratch — or even just contact with a mucous membrane, the eyes or the mouth — and sometimes the bite or the scratch can be so minute as to be invisible,” she said.
“Any contact with a bat is risky, and you need to be assessed.”
Doctors can give people “post-exposure prophylaxis,” a series of shots that can prevent a person from developing an infection, Henry added.
She said anyone who comes into contact with a bat should go to an emergency department and obtain protection.
When it came to the man in B.C., “the symptoms were too far along, and nothing could be done by the time rabies was considered.”
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Rabies infections aren’t found in bats alone, the federal government noted.
The disease has also been seen in foxes in Canada’s northern regions in Quebec, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Rabies has also been detected in skunks in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. Raccoons in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick have carried the disease as well.
The volume of rabies cases has fluctuated in recent years, though they have been dropping since 2016.
There were just under 400 rabies cases that year, more than doubling from the previous year.
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Ontario saw the most cases at that time — 288 — as 171 infections were discovered in raccoons, representing a dramatic spike from 2015.
Many cases were also spotted in Hamilton, where 126 raccoons were believed to be carrying the disease.
Rabies cases have fallen since then, though the highest numbers continue to be found in Ontario, federal statistics show.
There were 104 rabies cases in Ontario in 2018, with most of them concentrated in raccoons (50), bats (31) and skunks (22).
The next closest province was Saskatchewan, with 14 total cases — mostly in skunks (seven).
Humans can protect themselves against rabies by obtaining a vaccine.
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The federal government recommends it for groups such as people who work with animals, lab workers who handle the virus and individuals who travel to countries that are known for having dogs that carry the disease.
Rabies is often seen in dogs in Asian countries, Henry said.
“Having been bitten by a stray dog in one of those countries, it’s incredibly important to get rabies prophylaxis after that type of exposure,” she said.
—With files from Paul Johnson