Rabies on the Rise?

Rabies test

Hey, look at that cute critter coming towards us.  Why is it frothing at the mouth and baring its sharp teeth?  Lordy, it looks possessed!  Is it a rabid raccoon?  Quick, run inside as fast as you can!

With the recent number of news stories on wild animal attacks in the Northeast, including a skunk, a couple of foxes, and even an ornery otter in Maine, one might think there’s a rabies apocalypse rising.  But what exactly is rabies and is it really on the rise?  If your organization has people working outdoors or who might be exposed to areas populated by wild animals this is a concerning topic to address.  

Rabies is a virus that attacks the nervous system starting with peripheral nerves, typically in muscle tissue, then proceeds along neural pathways to the central nervous system causing inflammation (encephalitis) of the brain.  Early symptoms are similar to the onset of flu with further progression leading to jerky movement, partial paralysis, fear of water, hyper-excitement, agitation, confusion, and unconsciousness.  Upon infecting the brain, the virus travels along nerves and migrates into the salivary glands.  In the case of animals, transmission occurs by biting a host with virulent saliva entering the puncture wound.  Without treatment, the disease is almost invariably fatal.

Fortunately, a safe and effective vaccine for rabies virus is available, with Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux credited with developing the first vaccine in 1885.  Today, there’s an oral rabies vaccine in pellet form that can be used to eradicate rabies in wildlife vectors through a herd immunity effect.  This form of vaccination has proven successful in eliminating fox rabies in several European countries.  For more information on herd immunity and human vaccination rate implications for employers, check out Tony Jones’s post What Is This Herd Immunity?.        

According to the CDC, each year an estimated 40,000 people in the United States are vaccinated for rabies due to potential exposure.  Additionally, the CDC reports the US public health cost associated with rabies is more than $300 million a year.  Experts suggest the apparent uptick in rabies may be influenced by the normal virus cycle in its peak state, more outdoor activity for animals and humans due to a longer growing season from milder winters, and drought conditions causing overcrowding around declining water sources. 

Public health sources recommend the following for rabies prevention: 

  • Vaccinate dogs and cats against rabies (as required by law).
  • Keep dogs and cats under control outdoors.
  • Leave stray or unknown dogs and cats alone.
  • Leave wild animals alone and don’t keep them as pets.
  • Make your property unattractive to wild animals by sealing up openings in porches, basements, and attic spaces along with keeping lids tight on outdoor trash containers.
  • Contact an animal control officer upon observing a wild animal or a stray acting strange.
  • If bitten by an animal, wash the wound with soap and water for 10-15 minutes and promptly contact a healthcare provider.

The Global Alliance for Rabies Control coordinates World Rabies Day on September 28th of each year in an effort to increase awareness on the disease along with advocating support for rabies control and prevention.  Mark your calendar!  The date honors the anniversary of the death of Louis Pasteur (not from rabies).    

By Greg LaRochelle