By Ann Hohenhaus, DVM
Today, Friday, September 28th is World Rabies Day. This annual event serves to increase awareness about rabies in both animals and humans. In the United States, human cases of rabies have dramatically decreased since the 1970’s due to the “One Health” collaboration between public health officials, veterinarian-directed rabies vaccinations for companion animals, and wildlife vaccination programs.
Something new under the sun
Described in ancient Babylonia, by Homer in the Iliad, and also by Aristotle, rabies is possibly the oldest infectious disease known to both man and beast. But two recent developments, a shortage of the human vaccine, and increasing reports of rabies in animals has led to new issues in the prevention of rabies.
More animals and more species of rabid animals
Wild raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes harbor the rabies virus and transmit it to domestic animals and people. Airplane passengers got a scare earlier this year when a rabid bat checked himself into an Atlanta bound flight.
As cute as some wild animals are, we must never forget they are, in fact, wild and can cause great harm to humans. Most of us are wary of the typical rabies carriers like raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes, but recently, reports of rabies in unusual animals reminds us to look and not touch any wild animal, including groundhogs, beavers,
Even NYC is not immune to rabies. We had a small raccoon epidemic a couple of years ago in Central Park.
Cats are the number one domestic animal infected with rabies, and just a few days ago, rabid kittens inadvertently adopted by families in Georgia provoked a public health scare.
Human vaccine shortage
Six cases of human rabies were reported in the United States in 2011; in 2010, only two cases were reported. Since rabies is virtually always fatal, even one case is too many. Some people at high risk, like veterinarians and international travelers, are vaccinated against rabies as a precaution. For those not vaccinated, post exposure prophylaxis is administered.
The same vaccine works for both pre- and post-exposure treatments, but right now vaccine supplies are limited. Priority for vaccination goes to those possibly exposed to rabies, and preventive vaccination is on hold. Government officials believe this situation will resolve shortly.
Protect your pet, protect yourself
- Rabies vaccine is safe and readily available for companion animals. Talk to your veterinarian about rabies vaccination for your pets.
- Both you and your pet should avoid contact with wild animals. If you find an injured wild animal, report it to the appropriate authorities; don’t try and care for it yourself.
- Don’t encourage wild animals to visit your yard by feeding them.
If you want more information about rabies, review the most recent surveillance report from the American Veterinary Medical Association that was published just two weeks ago.