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updated 12/16/2011 2:05:52 PM ET 2011-12-16T19:05:52

A middle-aged Sumter County woman has become the first human to contract rabies in South Carolina in more than 50 years, state health officials said Friday.

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Doctors think the woman was bitten by a rabid bat a few months ago in her home, the Department of Health and Environmental Control said.

Rabies is a virus transmitted through saliva when someone is bitten. The disease travels slowly, taking weeks to reach the brain and nervous system. Once there, the symptoms like headaches and seizures begin and the infection is almost always fatal within a few weeks, said Dr. Eric Brenner a medical epidemiologist with DHEC's Bureau of Disease Control.

Treatment for rabies involves several shots and is almost always effective is fighting off the disease if given before symptoms appear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DHEC said federal health privacy laws will not allow it to release any other information on the woman, including whether she is still alive.

No more than three humans die from rabies in a typical year across the country, and South Carolina's last documented case in a person was in December 1959 when a Florence County man was bitten by a dog, according to the agency.

DHEC is talking to the woman's friends, family and health care providers to investigate if anyone else was exposed to rabies, but human-to-human transmission of the disease is very rare.

"It's not a public health threat at this time. It appears to be just a single bat bite," DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said.

South Carolina law requires all dogs and cats to be vaccinated against rabies, and health officials said most cases reported in the state now come from wild animals.

If someone finds a bat in their home, officials recommend they trap it under a container and contact their local DHEC office to have it tested for rabies. Bat bites can be especially dangerous because they are small and can go undetected. Other wild animals that can be infected include raccoons, foxes and skunks.

And if anyone thinks they were exposed to a rabid animal, they need to go to a doctor immediately, Brenner said.

"The rabies virus travels slowly through the body until it reaches the brain and central nervous system and produces serious initial symptoms including headache, difficulty swallowing, seizures, anxiety, agitation and confusion," Brenner said. "Most patients die within a few weeks after the onset of these symptoms."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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