. Tuesday, January 20, 2009
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You’re following an old deer trail through the woods late one Sunday afternoon when, off to your left, behind a boulder, you catch a glimpse of something brown––an old raccoon, foraging through the bushes for his supper.

You’d like to reach out a hand and offer him some of the berries you’ve picked for a snack, but you hesitate, as all the headlines about wild animals carrying rabies flood your mind.

Could this raccoon have rabies?

Assessing the risk

Rabies, although rare among humans, is not so uncommon in the animal kingdom, says Makonen Fekadu, D.V.M., the top rabies specialist at the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.

Not all species of wild animals––nor all animals in a species––carry the rabies virus, he adds. Those critters to look out for include, but are not limited to, raccoons along the East Coast, skunks in the north- and south-central states, dogs and coyotes along the border between Texas and Mexico, foxes in New York state an New England and bats throughout the United States.

Other animals––unless they attack you without provocation––should be judged innocent until proven guilty. Domesticated dogs are no longer a serious threat, since rabies vaccinations have virtually wiped out the disease in household pets, in 1990, only 148 dogs in the United States contracted rabies, and none transmitted it to humans. From 1980 to 1991, only 16 cases of human rabies were reported to the CDC, and only 7 of these are believed to have been acquired from animals within the United States.

A frightening disease

If so few cases of rabies are found in the United States each year, why does everyone seem to be so afraid of the virus?

Part of the answer may be that rabies is such a deadly disease once symptoms develop. The virus will kill anyone who has been infected unless they begin a series of five vaccinations before the symptoms appear, says Dr. Makonen. Around 30,000 of these postexposure vaccinations are given every year, and a testament to their effectiveness is the rarity of the disease in humans.

Rabies is usually transmitted through a bite or scratch. The virus stays in the area of the wound for several days or months while it multiplies. It’s that characteristic that can save your live, explains Dr. Makonen. It gives you an opportunity to get antirabies vaccinations from your doctor, and it gives the vaccine itself a chance to train your immune system to kill the virus before the virus can spread throughout your body.

Without the vaccinations, the virus would eventually move into the nerves, using them as highways to the spinals column and finally to the brain. There are no overt symptoms as this occurs, although those affected by it might begin to feel as through they’re getting a cold. Pain, cold, numbness, tingling or burning might also begin at the wound site.

When the virus actually reaches the brain, the possible symptoms include intermittent periods of anxiety, hyperactivity, hallucinations, convulsions and bizarre behaviors, such as biting or an overwhelming fear or water. After rabies symptoms develop, a person with rabies gradually becomes paralyzed and dies of respiratory failure within a few days.

Smart action

There is no way to tell if an animal has rabies just by looking at it. A raccoon walking slowly up the trail is just about as likely to have rabies as the one that’s snarling in the bushes. If you’re bitten by any animal:

Immediately clean the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Since the rabies virus tends to hang around the wound site, says Dr. Makonen, washing it out with soap and water is the single most effective means of preventing rabies that you have. You should wash even before you seek medical help, he says.

Scratched that do not break the skin rarely cause rabies, and if you are bitten or scratched by a dog or cat that has an up-to-date rabies tag, you are most probably safe. But if there’s no current tag, or if you are wounded by another kind of animal, give your local health department a call and find out if the type of animal that hurt you––skunk, raccoon, woodchuck, etc.––is carrying rabies in your area.

If it is, get yourself to a physician on the double to begin your vaccinations. In 1991, there people exposed to rabies decided they didn’t need the vaccinations. All three are dead.


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