At the peak of the outdoor season, confirmed cases of rabies in Virginia are tracking last year's numbers. The Department of Health has recorded 184 cases for 2013, just three shy of the 187 at the same time in 2012 that included five bats, a bear and a horse.
"Any mammal technically can get rabies, though the susceptibility may vary," said Julia Murphy, state public health veterinarian.
In Virginia, the raccoon variant of the rabies virus is the most prevalent and there's spillover to other mammals. "We have a lot of raccoons. They're very adaptable and their behavior is more social and they're more likely to approach other species," she said. That's evident locally, where this year Hampton and Isle of Wight have each recorded two rabid raccoons, Newport News has had three, and Williamsburg one raccoon and one skunk. Cases in Mathews have so far been confined to two cows.
The largest outbreak in Virginia to date this year has been in Fairfax County with 19 rabies cases, mostly in raccoons. Murphy attributes the county's higher rate — a constant each year — to population density and more opportunities for contact between people, their pets and wildlife. Rabies also has a strong presence in skunks and bats in Virginia.
The rabies virus is mainly in the saliva and brain of rabid animals. It can be transmitted through a bite or by getting saliva or brain tissue in a wound or in the eye or mouth. It attacks the nervous system and, without immediate treatment, is always fatal, according to the Department of Health web site. Initial symptoms include drooling, convulsions, excitability, a low-grade fever and muscle spasms. Animals may appear confused and off-balance or out of place, such as a raccoon being active in daylight.
In the past six years there has been just one human fatality in Virginia, a person who was bitten by a dog while traveling in India in 2009, Murphy said. "It's not unusual that cases are due to foreign travel, particularly from someone exposed to a dog or bat." She emphasized the importance of immediate reporting of any suspected exposure in order to start preventive treatment quickly.
The best protection for domestic animals is vaccination and keeping them away from wildlife. The mandated vaccination of cats and dogs over the past 30 years has also been critical in controlling rabies in people, Murphy added. This year, the Virginia legislature added the requirement that localities offer access to low-cost rabies vaccines for pets in clinics every other year; it takes effect on July 1.
Here are some ways to help control rabies:
• Keep vaccinations for dogs, cats, ferrets, and selected livestock up to date;
• If your pet is attacked or bitten by a wild animal, call animal control authorities; make sure it receives a booster vaccination;
• If you see wildlife in seeming distress, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator or the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries;
• Don't let pets roam free;
• Do not leave garbage or pet food outside as it may attract wild or stray animals;
• Do not approach, touch or adopt wildlife. If you see an animal acting strangely, report it to your local animal control department and do not go near it yourself.
• For more information, contact your local health department. Contact information for health departments can be found at http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/lhd/.
Here are the Health Department's instructions for what to do if you have been bitten:
• Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and lots of water;
• If possible, capture the animal under a large box or can, or at least identify it before it runs away. Don't try to pick the animal up; call an animal control or law enforcement officer;
• Notify your family doctor immediately and explain how you got the bite. Your doctor will want to know if the animal has been captured. If necessary, your doctor will give the anti-rabies treatment recommended by the United States Public Health Service. Your doctor will also treat you for other possible infections that could be caused from the bite;
• Report the bite to the local health department.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun