Scratch from dog in Africa may have infected rabies victim


LISA MCMURRAY, the Belfast woman who died of rabies on Tuesday evening, had no suspicion that she was in danger despite having worked with animals in Africa in recent years, according to her friends.

Ms McMurray, who lived in the greater Belfast area, died at the Royal Victoria Hospital on Tuesday after she was diagnosed with the illness in mid-December. She was in a critical condition in the hospital for over three weeks.

Doctors knew she contracted the disease in Africa because it was an African strain, but it is unclear how she did so. Friends say the 37-year-old animal lover had inoculation against rabies and other diseases for African trips in 2006 and 2007. "She was never bitten by any animal while there, because if she had been she would have immediately got booster shots," a source said.

There is speculation that Ms McMurray may unknowingly have been infected while separating two fighting dogs at an animal sanctuary in South Africa in 2006. It is understood that in a letter to her family she referred to receiving scratches in such an incident, but at the time was not conscious of any danger to her health or life.

She is the first victim of rabies in Northern Ireland since 1938.

Dr Paul McKeown of the Republic's Health Protection Surveillance Centre said there was "no record of anyone from the 26 counties being treated for rabies here since 1900 and some time before that - whatever about Irish people who may have suffered the disease abroad".

The last recorded case of an animal suffering rabies here was that of a dog in 1902, he said.

There are almost 55,000 fatalities from rabies in the world each year, mainly in Africa and Asia.

There were 23 recorded deaths of British people suffering from rabies since 1946, the most recent having been a woman infected by a dog bite in Goa, India, in 2005.

Dr McKeown said that as soon as rabies symptoms become apparent the patient almost invariably dies, although he was aware of cases of two children surviving after they were vaccinated while showing symptoms.

Ms McMurray, who was single, was well-known in Northern Ireland, having worked as communications manager for the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau for more than seven years, before switching jobs last year to manage the Cats Protection Northern Ireland Adoption Centre in Dundonald in east Belfast.

Her parents predeceased her, and her three brothers said they were "devastated" at her death. "We are extremely proud not only of all she achieved in life but also of the bravery with which she fought her illness," they said. "Her courage was inspiring and typical of the passionate and determined way in which she led her life. Her loss will leave a huge hole in all our lives, and her family and friends will miss her terribly," they added.

Belfast Lord Mayor Tom Hartley said Ms McMurray "did much to attract visitors to our city and to enhance its reputation around the world" at the visitor centre. Offering his condolences, he added: "Lisa was a warm, friendly person with a ready smile and a willingness to help. She was someone who threw herself into every task and rallied those she worked with to give their best."