Health Department Reminds Public of Rabies Risk - Recent Mass Exposures Show Disease Continues to be a Public Health Threat
Albany, July 21 – Noting that at least 90 New Yorkers currently are undergoing treatment as a result of separate group exposures to six rabid animals, State Health officials today reiterated warnings against touching or handling any wild animal and urged people to keep pet vaccinations up–to–date.
Forty–seven of the recent rabies treatments resulted from three mass exposures to rabid baby raccoons in Wayne, Seneca and Cattaraugus counties. In each instance, the raccoons had been taken from the wild and cared for in homes for several weeks. In Wayne and Seneca counties, a large number of people handled the raccoons during parties, and some bites and scratches occurred.
Another recent mass exposure occurred in Monroe County. A cat with no record of rabies shots bit a neighbor and then was handled by more than 25 people, including veterinary hospital staff during the required 10–day observation period. When the cat tested positive for rabies, those individuals all required rabies postexposure treatment. Meanwhile, 17 children and two counselors who were at summer camps in Essex and Ontario counties had to receive rabies shots because a bat was discovered to have been flying among them while they slept. Rabies shots would not have been necessary if the bat had been captured and tested negative.
People who have been bitten, scratched or had contact with the saliva or nervous tissue of a potentially–infected animal must undergo a month–long series of rabies shots if the animal is rabid or is not available for testing to rule out rabies. Contact with bats may be especially dangerous because bats have small teeth that may not leave a visible bite mark. Picking up a bat may result in an exposure even if someone is not aware that they have been bitten. In addition to direct physical contact, of concern are incidents where unrecognized exposures could occur, such as when:
- a bat is found in a room with a sleeping person;
- a bat is found in a room with an unattended child;
- a bat is found in a room with a person under the influence of alcohol or drugs or with other sensory or mental impairment; and
- in some circumstances, a bat is found close to an unattended child outdoors.
In such cases, the bat should be captured and submitted for rabies testing. Only 4% of bats tested at the State Health Department's Wadsworth Center's Rabies Laboratory are positive for rabies; treatments required for these type of exposures will be unnecessary if the bats causing the exposure are captured and test negative for rabies.
The State Rabies Laboratory also recently confirmed a case of rabies in a black bear. The bear had broken into an occupied home in Ulster County. Although two cases of rabies previously were identified in black bears in other Northeast states, this was the first case of its kind in New York.
These incidents are a reminder that New York State leads the nation in the number of rabid animals and precautions must be taken regarding animal contacts. Rabies is a fatal disease caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system. The virus is present in the saliva and nervous tissue of an infected animal. Rabies is most often seen among wild animals such as raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes. Cats, dogs and livestock can get rabies if they are not vaccinated or up–to–date on their rabies vaccinations. Deer and large rodents, such as woodchucks, also can get rabies.
If You Potentially Are Exposed to Rabies:
- Immediately wash the area of contact with lots of soap and water; this is a critical step to prevent the virus from reaching your nervous system.
- Seek medical attention right away.
- Call your county health authority to evaluate your risk of rabies, including whether rabies postexposure treatment is recommended. Your costs may be reimbursable if treatment is authorized by your county health authority before it begins.
For More Information
Persons who have been bitten, scratched or licked by a wild animal, or who have questions about possible bat exposures to rabies are advised to contact their county health authority. County health authority telephone numbers may be found on the first page of the telephone book or in the "Government Listings" section. Additionally, county phone numbers and other information about rabies are available at the NYSDOH website: http://www.health.state.ny.us (click on "Directory Services", then "Rabies Response Helplines"), and on the Wadsworth Center's Rabies Laboratory website at: http://www.wadsworth.org/rabies.