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Centre County Leads State in Rabies Cases

by and on September 09, 2017 5:00 AM

Centre County continues to lead the state in the number of confirmed rabies cases this year, with three more raccoons and a fox added to the tally for the month of July, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

In the year to date, 15 Centre County animals have been confirmed to have rabies: one bat, 10 raccoons and four foxes.

A game commission officer said the reason Centre County could be in the lead for rabies cases is that a family of animals may have all gotten rabies and been euthanized and tested all from one incident.

July had the highest number of rabies cases for a month in 2017 with 46 confirmed. There were 32 in June, 28 in May, 32 in April, 23 in March, 23 in February and 16 in January.

That’s down though from 223 rabies cases for the year in July 2016, but up from 187 year to date in July 2015.

Rabies typically peaks in July or August in Pennsylvania.

It was in June 2014 that Tracey Moriarty was bitten by a fox that turned out to have rabies.

Moriarty told the Gazette she was at her home in Boalsburg when she spotted a gray animal she at first thought was a cat. Her husband recognized it as a gray fox, and it left the yard.

Moriarty then went to warn her neighbors who had small dogs, and the fox doubled back and focused in on her. She said she knew she was done for and decided to face the fox head-on instead of running.

The fox bit at her feet and ankles and became somewhat entangled in her long skirt. She grabbed the fox, and it sunk its teeth into her thumb and hand.

She eventually got help as neighbors came with a dog cage, but she was covered in blood, spit and fur while trying to hold the fox to the ground.

A police officer who arrived on scene shot the fox in the head, and the brain is the critical organ that medical and animal professionals need to study. But she said the state Department of Agriculture was able to determine the fox was rabid from a small sample of the brain.

Moriarty said the rabies treatment was tricky, and she believes the state Department of Health could have better and clearer guidelines for treating the disease.

She takes Enbrel, an immuno-suppressant, so she was unsure how the disease would behave in her body and in conjunction with the rabies vaccine. She said there’s only been one case of latent rabies, but she’s worried about her immune system still.

Moriarty also said people should be more aware of the biohazard aspect of dealing with the carcass of animals, and not to just shoot it and remove the body. The animal’s fluids could be left on the ground for anyone to tramp through and bring into their home. She said she also probably should have been cut off from all other people after the attack and immediately taken to a secure shower.

Last September Lancaster County got a rabies scare with two reported animal cases and a woman bitten when she didn’t heed advice to avoid a rabid cat that eventually bit her, PennLive reported.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission says rabies was probably introduced to the continent in the 1700s, and has spread to every continent. Some island nations have successfully eradicated the disease.

The virus is transmitted by way of saliva from the bite of an infected animal.

The important key to treating rabies in humans to seek professional medical attention immediately if a person thinks they’ve been bitten by an infected animal. By the time neurological signs set in, the virus has likely been incubating for weeks or months and it will be too late.

“If post-exposure treatment is administered before clinical signs appear, the development of rabies will be prevented nearly 100% of the time,” the game commission said.

Most people are probably familiar with the typical first stages of rabies, known as the “furious” stage where animals may exhibit excitability, aggression and lack of fear. Animals then typically progress to “dumb” rabies, or go straight to this stage, where they will lose coordination and become paralyzed.

Most animals die within 10 days of showing signs of rabies.

If there has been human contact with an animal a person believes to be wild, the game commission will also forward the incident to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Fortunately, there are very few human cases, with only one to three reported in the U.S. each year, but nearly all cases of rabies are fatal. Those bites come from a mixture of wild and domestic animals.

Doty McDowell, a conservation officer with the game commission, said agencies usually only worry about testing an animal if there has been contact with a human or a domesticated pet. He said sometimes there are calls where people spot an animal acting strangely in the wild, and he said the game commission simply doesn’t have the resources to respond and euthanize each animal. He also said there are a number of reasons why an animal may act strangely, and that daytime activity from typically nocturnal animals also doesn’t qualify as high priority.

He said wild animals such as foxes and raccoons that curl up in a person’s yard for several hours and don’t move could be of concern, but typically those animals will be captured and removed, but not tested for rabies.

Centre County is part of the Game Commission’s northcentral region, and those with a wildlife issue should call (570) 398-4744.

The Centers for Disease Control reports a major shift in rabies the 20th century. Before the 1960s, most cases were reported in domestic animals. Now, public health and wildlife agencies are reporting most cases come from wild animals.

The number of rabid animals in the U.S. has been on a steady decline since the early 1990s, though bats continue a steady climb upward. In 1994, there was a huge spike in the number of rabid raccoons, with about 6,000 reported cases in the U.S. The number of rabid skunks has remained generally flat in recent years, as have some skunk variants.

The most recent U.S. data available from the CDC is from 2015. Texas leads the way by far with 952 total reported cases, the bulk of them from bats and skunks.

Though rabies vaccinations in household pets had helped to slow or stop the spread of the disease, some 70 dogs and 250 cats are reported to have rabies each year, almost all of them unvaccinated.


This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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