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Rabid skunks continue to be found in the Ozarks region

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Arkansas and Missouri health officials are on alert as rabies cases in both states begin to rise. The most recent cases reported in both states occurred in skunks
Howell County Health Department officials have confirmed a ninth case of rabies within the county this year, just four miles west of West Plains. The rabid skunk had exposed the virus to three vaccinated dogs, which are now being kept in a 45-day quarantine.

"In previous years, nine cases had been our highest yearly total," said Howell County Health Department Environmental Services Supervisor Justin Frazier. "We have already reached that number and we are not yet through May."

In Oregon County, Oregon County Health Department Administrator Sheila Russell says only one case, also involving a skunk, has been reported so far, but residents need to take precautions to prevent exposure of a loved one or family pet.

"This is a problem with a very simple solution -- vaccinate your pets," said Russell. "We can't control the wild animals that share our country living with us, but we can protect our families and our pets by having them vaccinated. If someone does get bitten, the costs for treatment can run from $600-$700, where a rabies shot for your pet is less than $20."

Russell pointed out that if your animal became infected and bit someone else, you would be left holding the bill for their medical treatment.

"You are responsible for your animal," said Russell. "Take advantage of our scheduled clinics, or make an appointment today to get your animals vaccinated. When it comes down to it, like the old saying says, 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.'"

Rabies is a viral disease of mammals and is transmitted primarily through bites. Annually, 7,000 to 8,000 rabid animals are detected in the United States, with more than 90 percent of the cases in wild animals. Rabies is found naturally in Missouri, occurring primarily in bats and skunks, although other animals are also found rabid each year, including domestic species such as dogs, cats, horses and cattle.

Although rabies is transmitted to humans almost entirely through bites from rabid animals, contamination of open wounds or mucous membranes with saliva or nervous tissue from a rabid animal could potentially constitute an exposure. Rabies in humans is almost invariably fatal. Fortunately, human deaths in the United States have become relatively rare because: (1) effective vaccinations have been available for dogs and cats since the 1950s, (2) public health practices such as animal quarantine and testing are aggressively pursued, and (3) improved anti-rabies shots have been developed for persons exposed to rabies.

Tragically, in 2008, a human rabies fatality occurred in Missouri in an individual who did not seek medical advice or treatment following a bat bite. Before this, the last human rabies infection in the state was reported in 1959.

Effective rabies vaccines are available for dogs, cats, ferrets, sheep, cattle, and horses. Vaccination of cats and dogs is crucial, since vaccinated pets are a protective barrier between the people who own and interact with them and rabid wild animals with which the pets might have contact.

Dogs and cats whose owners consider them to be "indoor animals" should also be vaccinated because these pets often have exposures to other animals, either by the dog or cat being unintentionally released to the outdoors, or by wild animals such as bats getting into the house. Vaccinations must be administered by a licensed veterinarian. Primary and booster vaccinations should be obtained in accordance with recommendations from licensed veterinarians and in accordance with local animal control ordinances. There is no postexposure treatment available for animals as there is for humans.

The incubation period of rabies in people is also variable (depending upon factors such as the site and severity of the bite), but averages three to eight weeks. Following an exposure to rabies, there is normally a window of opportunity (usually measured in days) in which the patient can receive a series of shots to keep him/her from developing disease. Once symptoms begin, the outcome is almost always death.

Early symptoms of rabies often include sensory changes at the site of the bite (numbness or tingling), fever, headache, and a general feeling of discomfort. As the infection progresses, the patient may exhibit excitability, anxiety, aerophobia (abnormal aversion to air in motion), and hydrophobia (abnormal fear of water). Other neurological symptoms may include mental confusion, paralysis, delirium, and convulsions. Without medical intervention, death usually occurs within two to six days.

With medical intervention, the course of disease may be prolonged to several weeks before death ensues. The diagnosis of rabies in humans may be complicated since other diseases that affect the brain produce similar symptoms. Diagnosis is also difficult in the early stages of disease when tests for rabies may not yet be positive. Specimens obtained for testing include saliva, blood, cerebral spinal fluid, and biopsied nerve tissue.

The following actions should be taken if a person is bitten or otherwise possibly exposed to a rabid animal:

Domestic animals: Identify and, if possible, confine the biting animal. Dogs, cats, and ferrets may be quarantined for 10 days (if healthy and depending on other circumstances), or they may be euthanized and tested for rabies. Other domestic animals are handled on a case-by-case basis.

Wild animals: Identify and, if possible, confine the biting animal for rabies testing. No quarantine period is recognized for wild animals.

After being bitten, wash the wound immediately and thoroughly with soap and water for 10 to 15 minutes. Consult with a physician to: (1) check the tetanus immunization status, (2) determine if antibiotic treatment is needed for bacterial infection, (3) determine if other medical procedures are necessary, such as sutures in the case of disfiguring wounds, and (4) have a rabies risk assessment accomplished, including determining if the anti-rabies series of shots is warranted.

There is a lot that Missourians can do to prevent a rabies infection.

* Ensure dogs and cats are up-to-date on rabies vaccinations. Vaccinations are also available for ferrets, horses, cattle and sheep. The effectiveness of animal vaccines is the main reason for the nationwide decline in rabies cases among people and domestic animals.

* Keep pets under control; do not allow them to run loose.

* Avoid contact with stray pets and wild animals; do not keep wild animals or wild animal crosses as pets.

* Report wild animals exhibiting unusual behavior or stray pets to animal control officials.

Children suffer a disproportionate number of bites from animals, often resulting in serious injury to the face, head and neck. The following tips can help children avoid being bitten, and the resulting physical/mental trauma and potential exposure to rabies and other diseases that accompany bites:

* Never touch unfamiliar or wild animals. Enjoy wild animals from afar.

* Avoid direct contact with stray animals. Stray cats and dogs may not have been vaccinated against rabies.

* Never adopt wild animals or bring them into the home.

* Do not try to nurse sick animals back to health. It is common to want to rescue and nurse a hurt wild animal, but that animal may have rabies. Ask an adult to call an animal control officer or animal rescue group for help with the sick animal.

* Make sure that trash cans and pet foods are secured so that they do not attract wild animals.

* Do not disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating, or caring for puppies.

* If bitten, report the bite to an adult immediately.

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