It's a disease that's been known and feared for hundreds of years, and for good reason.
Rabies is a viral infection of a variety that, once symptoms start to show, it's too late to do anything to prevent the disease from progressing. Once it starts progressing, a frightening and painful trajectory to death is all but inevitable (there have been fewer than 10 documented cases of people surviving an infection once symptoms are detected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control).
After initial headaches and fevers, the disease advances, according to the CDC, "to symptoms of cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, confusion, agitation. As the disease progresses, the person may experience delirium, abnormal behavior, hallucinations and insomnia."
Other, less clinical descriptions of the later stages are a good deal more horrifying.
So legendary is the disease, that from a young age most children are aware of these basics: If you are bitten by a stray pet or a wild animal that can't be found, you have to get a painful series of shots, or you'll meet a tragic end.
Making the disease that much more insidious is how it is contracted. There are plenty of innocent scenarios:
• A child out on a family picnic stumbles upon a seemingly friendly dog or cat, or a cute young raccoon, ends up being scratched or bitten, and contracts the virus.
• Or a family pet encounters an infected opossum or raccoon, then brings the virus home.
Largely, the disease is under control in the U.S., according to the CDC, which reports human rabies deaths are down from more than 100 a year in late 1800s to one or two a year by the 1990s. Prior to the 1960s, most cases reported to the CDC involved domesticated animals, but since then, the majority of cases involve wild animals.
In Harford County, outbreaks involving wild animals have been noteworthy in recent decades. As recently as the mid-1980s, Harford County led the nation in reported rabies cases. Though that dubious number one designation has long since faded, the county health department has remained vigilant in its efforts to keep rabies cases to a minimum and prevent human infection.
Rabies remains a serious public health threat because it is a disease that is able to perpetuate itself in populations of wild animals and, unlike many diseases, it is easily transmitted from animals to people. As a result, the CDC reports, the costs associated with detection, prevention and control in the U.S. are estimated at more than $300 million a year.
Among the prevention measures taken locally are the annual rabies vaccination clinics coordinated by the Harford County Health Department and conducted in cooperation with local volunteer fire companies and other civic organizations.
This past weekend saw the first series of clinics this year in Harford County; more are planned for this weekend. The cost is a very reasonable $5 per pet to have dogs, cats and ferrets – and their families – protected from the disease.
There is no reason why any pet in Harford County should not be vaccinated against rabies. Anyone who can afford to feed a pet also can afford to pay $5 for a rabies shot.
And as for the wild things: If you see a wild animal behaving strangely, stay away from it and report it to police or animal control. If a bat enters your home and someone comes in contact with it, let someone in the health care field know the details.
But the most vital protection remains making sure dogs, cats and ferrets are vaccinated.