Archived Story

State, U.S. officials meet to discuss rabies cases

Published 3:30pm Thursday, August 1, 2013

Preventing rabies

The biggest obstacles to preventing the spread of rabies in Alabama are relocation and unsatisfactory test results caused by faulty samples, said Dee Jones, state veterinarian for the Alabama Department of Public Health.

In February, for example, Jones received a phone call from a health office in Walker County in Northwest Alabama about rabid raccoons and possible human exposure in the area.

Jones’s first thought was, “Why are there rabid raccoons in Walker County?”

The answer? Someone had adopted three raccoons in Baldwin County, an area of Alabama known for rabies, and had brought the animals up Interstate 65 to an area of the state where rabies is unheard of. One of the raccoons tested positive for rabies.

While it’s illegal to relocate wild animals across county lines and major waterways, Jones said relocating wild animals even just a few miles could spread the disease.

Because raccoons are so territorial, relocating them even several miles away might cause them to roam into new territory until they find their way back home, probably fighting other raccoons and animals along the way, Jones said. If the relocated animal were infected, it could spread the disease to other animals during its search, he said.

Jones also attributed human intervention as an obstacle to preventing and controlling rabies. When locals shoot animals in the head because they suspect the animal of having rabies, Jones said they prevent the animals from being tested, and testing helps officials determine whether the rabies virus is spreading to new locations.

If someone does decide to shoot an animal suspected of rabies, Jones said it would be better to shoot the animal in the lungs because the brain has to be intact in order for the animal to be tested, he said.

Jones also said vaccinations of domestic animals are important.

“If we didn’t vaccinate our dogs, we wouldn’t be talking about raccoons,” Jones said.

Today, 8 percent of all rabies cases reported in the United States occur in domestic animals, though before rabies vaccinations became available in the 1960s, domestic animals like dogs represented the majority of reported rabies cases.

“(Prevention) is the whole premise of why we vaccinate dogs and cats,” Jones said.

What to do if you’re exposed

Rabies is most often transferred to humans through bites, but it can also be transferred through a scratch, Jones said. Because rabies is transferred through saliva, if an infected animal has gotten saliva on its paws and scratches a human, then the virus can be transferred through the new wound, just like it would in the case of a bite, Jones said.

In cases where an animal bites or scratches a human and cannot be caught for testing, or in cases where test results are unclear, officials are forced to be cautious and will recommend the person take a series of post-exposure rabies vaccinations, he said.

With only two companies in the United States that currently produce the vaccine, Jones said it’s important to conserve it for those people who really need it, making preventative measures like vaccinating animals, reporting bites and not relocating wild animals all the more important.

Anyone with concerns about possible animals with rabies or human rabies exposures should call the rabies hotline at 1-888-RABIES4 or (334) 844-5670. For more information about rabies, visit CDC.gov/rabies.

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