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Environmental Health

Everyone should be on their guard against rabies

Everyone should be on their guard against rabies

May. 11, 2022

By Katie Minor

Earlier this spring, a reporter was leaving the grounds of the U.S. Capitol when she felt a sharp pain on her left ankle. When she turned around, she saw that she had been bitten by a red fox.

Unofficially dubbed “the Capitol Hill fox,” the animal attracted plenty of attention in Washington and the rest of the country as it evaded capture by police officers. Ultimately, the fox was caught and euthanized to be tested for rabies. The test came back positive.

Rabies is a fatal but very preventable viral disease that is usually found in wild animals like bats, raccoons, skunks, and yes, foxes. Animals with rabies can spread the disease through scratching or biting.

Luckily, the reporter that had been bitten already started post-exposure prophylaxis treatment for rabies, an extremely effective but costly treatment that usually involves a series of five shots given over two weeks.

In fact, rabies treatment is so effective that there were only five recorded rabies deaths in 2021, and zero rabies deaths were reported in 2019 and 2020.

But that’s only in humans. Besides interacting with wild animals (or being bitten by a fox on Capitol Hill), a common way for people to get rabies is by interacting with a pet who has also been exposed to rabies.

Any mammal can be affected by rabies, including dogs, cats, ferrets, etc. Not only is it required by law to vaccinate your dogs, cats and ferrets against rabies, but it is also the best way to keep your pet safe if it does come into contact with a strange-acting animal.

For example, if your vaccinated dog gets into a tussle with a rabid animal, it will likely only need observation and another shot. But if your dog is unvaccinated against rabies, there is a much higher chance it will need to be put down.

Pets cannot be vaccinated for rabies until the age of 4 months, and then according to West Virginia law, must be vaccinated no later than at 6 months. An animal receives a rabies vaccine and then a booster a year later. After that, they need a rabies vaccine every three years.

Besides vaccinating your pets, there are other ways to protect your family from rabies, such as avoiding wild animals and making your home less enticing to wildlife, especially raccoons.

Raccoons are the most popular carriers of rabies in our region, and there is even a variety of rabies spread specifically by raccoons that is found only in the Eastern United States. Raccoons are also known to be attracted to people’s trash, which means you could end up with a rabid raccoon very close to your home.

To keep raccoons away from your trash and your home, make sure to keep trash cans shut and sealed. You can use ammonia or mothballs around your trash cans to mask the smell. Standing water can also attract raccoons as well as mosquitoes. Raccoons are known to be very clever, so if they keep returning, try switching tactics.

Back in 2019, Monongalia County had its own trouble with rabies. There were about 20 known cases of rabies in Monongalia County that year, sometimes originating from a rabid raccoon getting into a scuffle with a dog in a fenced-in yard.

Even though the incidence of rabies has dropped dramatically in Monongalia County since, it’s a good thing to consider that if a dog is left unsupervised in a fenced-in yard for a long period of time, an encounter with a rabid animal can happen. In that situation, if family members come in contact with blood on the dog, they may require rabies treatment too.

And if the dog wasn’t vaccinated against rabies, it would need to be put down.

Monongalia County Health Department deal with this problem annually by teaming up with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which operates the Oral Rabies Vaccination program. 

The program entails dropping edible oral rabies vaccine (ORV) baits from airplanes, helicopters and vehicles into targeted zones. The vaccine is safe for animals to eat and will not hurt pets that might happen upon it. About 1.5 million packets are dropped annually in the West Virginia portion of the zone.

The Oral Rabies Vaccination program was successful; after the spike in 2019, there were hardly any cases in 2020 and 2021.

As the weather gets warmer and people are spending more time outdoors with their pets, there’s a higher chance of encountering animals carrying the rabies virus, so it’s a great time to make sure your pets are up to date on their rabies vaccinations.

If you see sick or strange-acting wild animals that have not encountered a person or a pet, you can call the USDA during business hours at 304-636-1785 or 866-487-3297 to collect it.

Plenty more information about what to do if you are bitten or encounter an animal with rabies is available on our website.

Katie Minor is the public information officer assistant at Monongalia County Health Department.

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