By JIMMY LAWTON
CANTON -- An increase in confirmed rabies cases has prompted a $45,000 St. Lawrence County Public Health Department budget increase to purchase human and animal vaccination supplies.
The St. Lawrence County Legislature approved the fund transfer recently after public health officials announced a rise in vaccine costs and usage.
The county typically budgets $100,000 for human and animal rabies vaccine, but public health has already exceeded that cost.
Rabies On the Rise
Public Health Director Susan Hathaway said 23 percent of animals tested for rabies were positive in the first half 2013. That number is up from an average of 4.2 percent over the three previous years.
“This has been a very busy rabies year,” Hathaway said. “We’ve had more animals testing positive and more people exposed.”
Hathaway said 18 people had received vaccinations following exposure to the disease between January and June of 2013. About 23 people are treated in the average year, but the rabies “season” doesn’t end until the frost sets in, she said.
“If it continues at the current rate, we are going to be well above last year’s numbers,” she said.
Hathaway said rabies is not always prevalent in St. Lawrence County. She said it existed mostly in southern portions near the Adirondacks, but in the pass few years it has made its way into more populated areas.
“It’s everywhere now. It’s not isolated to any one part of the county,” she said.
While the number of animals testing positive is on the rise, Hathaway said there is likely a much higher number of infected animals that come into contact with pets or people that are never tested. She said many people who come into contact with wild animals don’t kill, capture or report it.
“If there is a bat in the house most people shoo it out. But, if you don’t capture it, we can’t test it,” she said.
Although rabies-related human deaths are rare here, pets are not so lucky. Hathaway said rabies can be carried and transferred by any mammal through saliva and blood. She said animal bites are the most common method of transfer.
In St. Lawrence County raccoons, bats and skunks are the most common carriers. This year 15 raccoons tested positive along with two skunks and three bats.
She said the best way to avoid rabies exposure is to leave wild animals alone, even if they appear to be injured or docile.
“Don’t handle wild animals,” she said. “It can be hard in the spring when someone sees a baby animal that appears to be on its own, but people really need to let them be.”
Hathaway said keeping pets away from infected wildlife can be difficult, especially in rural areas where wildlife frequently passes through yards. However, Hathaway said protecting pets is easy.
“It’s sad when somebody has to put down a family pet, because it can be avoided just by getting your pet vaccinated and making sure it stays up-to-date,” she said.
Testing and Treatment
Hathaway said anyone who suspects they have been exposed to a rabid animal should see a physician immediately. If the animal in question is captured or killed it should be tested.
She said a wild animal must be killed in order to confirm infection. She said the test is performed on the animal’s brain, which must be in one piece.
“If it’s crushed or destroyed, we can’t get it tested,” she said.
Hathaway says humans exposed to the disease must receive a series of four shots. If a human is infected and not treated before the disease matures, it is nearly always fatal. Fortunately, human deaths from rabies are basically unheard of in North America.
“In the United States we have almost no human deaths from rabies, but world-wide rabies kills about 55,000 people each year,” she said.
For exposed pets, Hathaway said animals with up-to-date vaccinations will be given a booster shot to help fight off the infection.
“What we have to do is check immediately to see if pet is vaccinated, if they are up to date they will probably be given a booster shot just to be on the safe side,” she said.
Hathaway said treatment for pets without up-to-date shots is a bit more difficult.
“If the pet is not vaccinated it has to be quarantined for 10 days to make sure it isn’t sick,” she said.
Pets that develop symptoms while quarantined are euthanized.
Hathaway said the rising prevalence of rabies has prompted her department to hold rabies clinics and publish information to raise awareness.
She said each year the United States Department of Agriculture drops rabies vaccine bait in various parts of the county to reduce infections among wild animals, but despite the efforts the rate continues to grow.
Hathway said the her department receives grants to each year to offset expenses associated with rabies, but the funding doesn’t “begin to cover the cost.”
She said the best way to combat the problem is raising awareness.
“We just want people to make sure they get their pets vaccinated,” she said. “Stay away from wild animals and avoid contact with stray cats and dogs.”