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Online fundraiser for family of man who died from rabies after bitten by bat

Tributes have poured in for 21-year-old Nick Major, a much-loved taekwondo instructor at Cascadia Martial Arts in Parksville
Nick Major rabies bat

Nick Major was not doing anything out of the ordinary on that mid-May day he had a brief, but fatal encounter with a bat infected with rabies.

A family member said Major, 21, had been driving and pulled over on the side of the road on Vancouver Island when a bat flew into him. Health authorities confirmed the patient was outdoors and in broad daylight when the nocturnal creature “struck” his hand then flew away.

“He wasn’t doing anything risky that would put him in a position where he would encounter bats,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s chief provincial health officer. “This is an incredibly unfortunate strange circumstance for this young man and his family.”

Major had no visible puncture wound or scratch marks — something not unusual because bat scratches can be microscopic, said Henry.

Major developed symptoms of rabies six weeks after exposure.

According to an online fundraiser set up to help Major and his family, he was taken to the intensive care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, where doctors treated him for swelling on his spinal cord and brain.

He died on July 13, the first confirmed death from rabies contracted in B.C. since 2003, when a 52-year-old man died after developing arm weakness that progressed into paralysis.

In 1985, a 22-year-old B.C. student died after being bitten by a bat while working at a forestry camp in Alberta.

Tributes have poured in for Major, a much-loved taekwondo instructor at Cascadia Martial Arts in Parksville. Many described him as a hard worker and stellar teacher who had a tremendous impact on his community, including his students.

“Nick was an absolutely wonderful young man and we always admired how amazing he was with all the children he taught — he was truly talented,” said one online commenter. “His patience and kindness were appreciated and will be remembered.”

“We all will miss him and the sudden loss of such an incredible role model will be felt deeply by this entire community, young and old,” said another.

Health Minister Adrian Dix extended his condolences to Major’s family, calling the young man’s death “an extraordinary tragedy.”

Deaths from rabies infection are extremely rare. Major’s death is the second case in B.C. and the 25th in Canada in the last century.

Rabies is a virus that attacks the nervous system. Often introduced through a bite or scratch, it stays in the infected area, multiplying stealthily before travelling into the nerves, spinal cord and brain.

Once symptoms appear, it is usually too late for effective treatment.

About 200 people in B.C. receive vaccines against rabies annually because they may have been exposed to bats or other wild animals, said Dr. Eleni Galanis, physician epidemiologist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

“It’s an excellent and effective vaccine,” she said. “But if you don’t get the vaccine and once symptoms start, nearly everyone dies from the infection and there is no treatment.”

Worldwide, only five or six people have survived a rabies infection.

Danielle Dagenais, Metro Vancouver/Squamish co-ordinator for the B.C. Community Bat program, said most human contact with bats occur in mid-July to September when new pups are learning to fly.

It is also unusual for bats to be flying during the day and could be a sign it is infected with rabies. Anyone who spots bats in daytime should take extra precautions.

B.C. is home to 17 species of bats.

The risk from rabies and bats is everywhere in B.C., Henry noted, but it’s very small.

About 13 per cent of bats tested in the province tested positive for rabies. Among bats in the wild, the rate is about one per cent.

What to do if exposed

If you think you may have been exposed to rabies:

• wash the exposed body part with soap and flush with warm running water for 15 minutes;

• seek medical attention immediately;

• if deemed to be at risk, the doctor would give one shot of a rabies immune globulin that provides antibodies to neutralize the virus before it becomes established and a series of four doses of vaccine over two weeks.

Symptoms of rabies, which have an incubation period generally of three to eight weeks:

• in initial stages, pain, numbness, tingling at the site of the wound;

• paralysis of the limbs or facial muscles;

• difficulty swallowing and/or excessive drooling;

• aversion to water;

• in later stages, spread of paralysis, confusion, difficulty breathing, and coma

— Dr. Eleni Galanis, B.C. Centre for Disease Control