Rabies is what killed a 16-year-old in Santa Maria on Tuesday, and public health officials are trying to track down a companion who recently traveled with the teenager from Mexico. The boy came into the Marian Medical Center on March 18 delirious and drooling, and was having trouble breathing. He required resuscitation immediately, but doctors were not able to save his life.

“If you start showing symptoms,” said Dr. Eliot Schulman, the county’s Public Health director, “it is unusual to survive. That means your brain is infected, and there is no direct treatment for it.”

In the United States, it is extremely rare for humans to contract rabies, and that’s especially true locally. “The last case in Santa Barbara was 80 years ago,” said Schulman, citing a 1927 incident.

A photograph of the rabies virus.

There are cases in the United States, said Schulman, but they usually come from a wild animal bite; on the West Coast, that usually means a bat or a skunk while raccoons are usually the culprits on the East Coast. Domestic animals very rarely have rabies these days, though within the past five years, rabies detected on a dog traveling through Santa Barbara County and in a dead cat that had been bitten by a bat.

Officials believe that the boy contracted the disease in Mexico, because he had not been in the United States long enough to have had the disease take its course. As well, rabies is much more common in Mexico and Central America. For that reason, Schulman bets that the culprit was probably a rabid dog, though future tests by the state lab in Richmond will eventually determine what type of animal was responsible. Oddly, they could not find any bite marks on the victim.

The time from bite to death from rabies is variable, and depends on where the bite occurs. If it’s closer to the brain, the disease can take hold rather quickly. However, if caught early, post-exposure prophlylaxis will cure a victim in most cases.

In this case, the 16-year-old’s eight housemates have been identified and will be treated, even though casual contact is highly unlikely to spread the disease. But since direct contact with saliva of an affected person may pass the disease, officials are still on the lookout for the 16-year-old’s traveling companion, who is believed to be in either Santa Barbara or Ventura counties.


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