April 20, 2012
Facts and safety guidelines clear up misperceptions
With all the media attention that rabies gets, you may be surprised to learn that this disease is much less of a danger to Americans now than ever before. Thanks to widespread pet vaccinations, 100% effective post-exposure treatment, and the relative rarity of an undetected bite by a rabid animal, the number of human deaths in the United States due to rabies has declined to an average of only one or two per year.
Human fatalities caused by lightning strikes and bad hamburgers far exceed the number of human deaths caused by rabies. This doesn't mean you shouldn’t take precautions to protect yourself, your family, and your pets. The best ways to guard against rabies :
- Don’t approach or handle wild animals, especially sick wild animals.
- Vaccinate your pets.
- Get prompt post-exposure treatment when advised to do so by a doctor or health department.
Rabies (Lyssavirus) is an infectious disease that affects the central nervous system in mammals. It’s transmitted through the saliva a few days before death when the animal “sheds” the virus. Rabies is not transmitted through the blood, urine, or feces of an infected animal, nor is it spread airborne through the open environment. Because it affects the nervous system, most rabid animals behave abnormally.
In the “furious” form, wild animals may appear to be agitated, bite or snap at imaginary and real objects, and drool excessively. In the “dumb” form, wild animals may appear tame and seem to have no fear of humans.
There are other signs, such as the animal appearing excessively drunk or wobbly, circling, seeming partially paralyzed, disorientated, or self-mutilating. However, most of these signs can also be indicative of other diseases like distemper or lead poisoning. There are few behavioral signs that are telltale of rabies alone.
- Rabies travels from the brain to the salivary glands during the final stage of the disease—this is when an animal can spread the disease, most commonly through a bite.
- Rabies can’t go through unbroken skin. People can get rabies only via a bite from a rabid animal or possibly through scratches, abrasions, open wounds, or mucous membranes in contact with saliva or brain tissue from a rabid animal.
- The rabies virus is short-lived when exposed to open air—it can only survive in saliva and dies when the animal’s saliva dries up.
- If you handle a pet who has been in a fight with a potentially rabid animal, take precautions such as wearing gloves to keep any still-fresh saliva from getting into an open wound.
Any warm-blooded mammal can carry or contract rabies, but the primary carriers in North America are raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes, and coyotes. Since 1960, rabies has been more frequently reported in wild than in domestic animals in the United States. Wildlife now account for more than 90 percent of all reported rabies cases.
Rabies tends to be more common in different species in different places, but is certainly not limited to these trends:
- Raccoons suffer the most from this disease in the eastern US.
- Skunks are the dominant rabies victims in the north- and south-central states, although skunk rabies also occurs in the East.
- Bats suffering from rabies are not limited to any particular area but scattered widely.
- Foxes in western Alaska, parts of Arizona and Texas, and the eastern United States are victims more frequently than foxes in other areas.
- Coyotes with rabies have been found in southern Texas in the past but rarely in recent years.
- Rodents (squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs), rabbits, and hares rarely get rabies and have not been known to cause rabies among humans in the United States. Squirrels may suffer from the fatal roundworm brain parasite, which causes signs that look exactly like rabies.
- Opossums are amazingly resistant to rabies. Hissing, drooling, and swaying are part of the opossum's bluff routine. It is intended to scare away potential predators, yet it looks just like rabies and is the reason people can be convinced they’re seeing “rabid opossums” when they’re not.
Federal and state wildlife officials have been vaccinating wildlife in many regions over the past 15 years. They distribute vaccine-laden baits that the target animals eat and thereby vaccinate themselves. Right now, oral rabies vaccination of wildlife focuses on halting the spread of specific types of rabies in targeted carrier species. Next, it’s hoped that this tool can shrink the diseases’ range.
Given all the media attention that rabies regularly receives, it may be somewhat surprising to learn that very few people die from rabies nationwide each year. Over the past 10 years, rabies has killed only a total of 28 people in the U. S. This amounts to fewer than 3 fatalities a year nationwide.
People who contracted rabies in the United States were mostly infected by a bat. Most didn’t even know they were bitten. Some may have been sleeping when bitten. Others handled a bat bare-handed without realizing they’d been potentially exposed to rabies. But don’t panic over every bat sighting. Less than one-half of one percent of all bats in North America carries rabies.
Although raccoons suffer from rabies more than any other mammal in the United States (about 35 percent of all animal rabies cases), only one human death from the raccoon strain of rabies has been recorded in the United States.
Despite the long odds of contracting rabies, the remote possibility of infection exists and should not be taken lightly:
- Don’t approach or handle wild animals.
- Vaccinate your pets—cats and dogs both.
- If you see a wild animal who may be sick, contact your local animal control, veterinarian, or wildlife rehabilitator for help. Don’t handle sick wildlife!
- If anyone is bitten by any wild animal, get medical advice from a doctor or health department immediately.
- If your pet is bitten by any wild animal, get medical advice from your veterinarian immediately.
- Scrub any bite wound immediately and aggressively with soap and water, use antiseptic soap such as betadine or Nolvasan®, if available. Flush the wound thoroughly with water.
- If anyone is bitten by a potentially rabid animal, scrub and flush the wound then go to your doctor or an emergency room.
- If possible, the animal should be captured and tested for rabies. Unless you can do it without risking further bites, leave this task to animal control professionals.
- If you find a bat in a room where someone was sleeping or where children might have had contact with him, the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you assume the bat has bitten the sleeper or children and take the step for a known bite. CDC suspects that adults may overlook and children may underreport the bites of tiny bat teeth.
- Timely treatment after a bite or other exposure is 100 percent effective. The very few people who die from rabies are those who don’t get timely treatment.
If you see a wild animal such as a fox, raccoon, or skunk active in daylight, that doesn't mean the animal is rabid. It's actually normal and common for foxes to be active during the day. And in spring and early summer, mother raccoons, who are hard-pressed to feed their young, may forage all day long. Only if the typically nocturnal raccoon or skunk is exhibiting abnormal behavior should you seek advice from your local animal control, humane society, wildlife rehabilitator, or state wildlife agency.