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Environmental Health

Don't let your guard down against rabies

Don't let your guard down against rabies

May. 13, 2020

By Kenzie Bostick

By this time last year, Monongalia County already had several cases of rabies in raccoons.

Now, we are happy to note, there have been no reported cases to Monongalia County Health Department or from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. 

For the first four months of 2020, 55 animal encounters required four tests, all of which came back negative for rabies. Also, the USDA APHIS has tested 19 raccoons from Monongalia County since January 1, 2020 and zero were positive.

This means that the oral rabies vaccine that was dropped last year, from airplanes by the USDA and by hand by Monongalia County Health Department’s Environmental Health program, appears to be working.

While this is great news, people should not let their guard down when it comes to taking measures to avoid rabies.

In the United States, rabies is commonly found in wild animals, such as bats, foxes, raccoons and skunks. The disease spreads when saliva or tissue from the brain or nervous system of an infected animal comes in direct contact with broken skin or eyes, nose or mouth. Typically, it comes from a bite. Rabies cannot be spread by petting a rabid animal or contact with its bodily fluids.

Rabies is a viral disease found in mammals that attacks the nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov). The closer to the head a person is attacked, the faster rabies can develop.

After rabies exposure, the virus has to travel to the brain before it causes symptoms. The incubation period of rabies can take weeks or months, and can vary based on location of the bite, type of virus, and existing immunity.

At first, the symptoms may feel like those of the flu, such as weakness, fever, headache and can last for days. Within a few days, there can be symptoms of anxiety, confusion and agitation. As it progresses, symptoms can include hallucinations, fear of water, insomnia and delirium. This time is known as the acute period and typically lasts two to 10 days.

Once clinical signs appear, it is almost always fatal.

That’s why avoiding rabies is so crucial. There are some measures that can be taken to prevent the spread of rabies. Reduce risk of exposure in yourself and your pets by keeping your pets inside and up to date on rabies vaccines. In West Virginia, it is state law that dogs, cats and ferrets are vaccinated for rabies.

People who should receive a rabies pre-exposure vaccination include those who plan to have contact with wild or domesticated animals, will be visiting areas where timely medical care is difficult to find, or will be spending more than one month in an area where it is common for dogs to have rabies. Outside of the United States, it is more common for dogs to have rabies.

Homeowners also should take steps to make their homes less appealing to wild animals, such as securing lids on outdoor garbage and sealing up any holes that would allow them to enter.

If you have already been exposed to the rabies virus, you should seek immediate medical care at a hospital emergency department and receive post-exposure prophylaxis, which consists of a dose of human rabies immune globulin and a rabies vaccine. Additional doses of vaccines are given on days three, seven and 14.

Registered sanitarians from MCHD Environmental Health distributed oral rabies vaccine around Morgantown last September.

During last year’s rabies spike in Monongalia County, there were incidents of pet dogs fighting with rabid raccoons. In many cases, the dogs would then interact with their humans, who then would require rabies postexposure prophylaxis. Pets who come into contact with a rabid animal have to be re-vaccinated for rabies and observed. If pets have not been vaccinated in the first place, they usually have to be put down.

If USDA APHIS and MCHD can continually keep up the oral rabies vaccine program, which takes place in late summer, the hope is that we will continue to see zero cases of rabies in Monongalia County.

But it’s always still important to take preventative measures.

MCHD Clinical Services offers the rabies pre-exposure vaccine as part of the International Travel Clinic. You can call 304-598-5119 for an appointment.

In the meantime, if your dog, cat or ferret hasn’t been vaccinated for rabies, that should be done as soon as possible. Not only can it save time, money and even your and your pet’s lives, but it’s also West Virginia state law.

Kenzie Bostick is a public information intern at Monongalia County Health Department.

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