Death a Dire Reminder of Rabies Threat

"You can't control" rabies, says Fairfax County animal control officer Richard Cash. "I think it is beneficial to know where it is, just so we are able to keep track of it." (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 30, 2005

Edward P. Hurley III -- Eddie to everyone who knew him -- was the kind of guy who never got sick. He was a touch over 6 feet tall and kept in shape by jogging and playing on two softball teams.

Two years ago, on Valentine's Day, he developed a low-grade fever. His family figured he was coming down with the flu. But for 10 days he just couldn't seem to shake the fever. On the 11th day, he was slurring his words and had trouble keeping his balance. Four days later, he went into a coma. On March 10, Hurley, 25 -- his brain no longer functioning -- died. Doctors told his family that they thought he had meningitis and encephalitis.

In June, they were given a different cause of death by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hurley had died of rabies.

He is the first and only person in the United States to die of raccoon rabies, Virginia Health Department officials have said.

Rabies has taken up permanent residence in the Washington area. The raccoon strain of rabies has infected the region's fox, groundhog and squirrel populations, in addition to the raccoons. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a wildlife oral-vaccination campaign underway in parts of the country, including southwest Virginia, that is designed to keep the disease from spreading, but it doesn't get rid of it where it is established. For now, people in the area -- and their pets -- have no choice but to live among rabid wildlife.

"Rabies is a cyclical thing," said Earl Hodnett, a wildlife biologist for Fairfax County. "But what really drives the number of human exposures is the increase in population. As areas become more developed, the chance of encountering a rabid raccoon is greatly increased."

Eddie Hurley never had been identified publicly as the Northern Virginia man who died of rabies in 2003. For privacy reasons, his name was withheld by authorities when they announced the cause of death. Recently, his parents, Kathleen and Edward P. Hurley Jr., sat at the dining room table in their Herndon home and talked about their son's death. They agreed to speak because they believe their experience could help educate the public about rabies.

"People know of the disease," Ed Hurley Jr. said, "but I don't think they understand how easy it is to get it. I am not 100 percent sure that most people know you can die from it."

Eddie Hurley died a horrible death. The disease attacked his nervous system, slowly taking away his speech, his balance, altering his moods and then attacking his brain. His family has no idea how or when he contracted the disease.

"Eddie's nature was such that if, in fact, he was ever bitten by something, he would almost brag about it," his father said. "You know: 'Hey, guess what happened to me? I've just got bitten,' or whatever. So we don't know whether he had a cut on his leg or his hand and some dog happened to lick him while he was jogging. . . . We couldn't put a handle on it. We do know he was not an animal lover."

His mother and father sat at the table in a home still filled with Eddie's life. Photos of him, along with his brother and sister, are all over the house. As they spoke, Kathy Hurley showed off his wedding picture. Often, Ed and Kathy Hurley would finish each other's thoughts when they spoke of their son.

Looking back, Ed Hurley said he is glad they did not know their son was infected with the rabies virus, because once the symptoms appear, death is all but certain. If an antiviral treatment is begun immediately after contact with a rabid animal, survival is likely.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company