State Health Department Issues Precaution for New Yorkers to Help Avoid Potential Exposure to Rabies from Wildlife

ALBANY, May 31, 2006 - To help protect New Yorkers from the potential exposure to rabies from wildlife, the State Health Department today reminded the public to avoid handling wild animals.

The practice of picking up wild animals, particularly offspring, because of their cute and cuddly appearance, often requires unnecessary rabies post exposure treatment for people. Individuals who touch wild animals may have to undergo a month-long series of rabies shots if they are bitten, scratched or had contact with the saliva or nervous tissue of a potentially infected animal, unless it can be euthanized and tested to rule out rabies. Rabies is a fatal disease unless post exposure treatment is given before symptoms occur.

The best practice is always to leave wildlife alone, or if an animal requires assistance, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your community. Protect yourself and the animal by avoiding direct contact.

Rabies is a deadly 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 ferrets can get rabies if they are not vaccinated or up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations. Rabies can also be found in New York livestock, deer, and large rodents, such as woodchucks.

New York confirmed a total of 565 animal rabies cases during 2005. Case numbers increase and fall periodically in different regions of the state due to the cyclical nature of the disease. Even if case numbers decrease in some counties during a particular year, they may still remain high in others.

Health officials warn that contact with bats may be especially dangerous. Picking up a bat may result in an exposure even if someone is not aware that they've been bitten. Bats have small teeth and the bite may not be visible. If any such contact occurs, the bat should be captured, if it is possible to do so with no further contact, and submitted for rabies testing. If the rabies test is positive, all persons found to be at risk will undergo rabies post exposure treatment.

Individuals who believe they may have come in contact with a rabid animal should take the following precautions:

  • 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 agency to evaluate your risk of rabies, including whether rabies post exposure treatment is recommended. Your costs may be reimbursable, providing treatment is recommended by your local health department.

Persons who have been bitten, scratched or licked by a wild animal, or who have questions about other possible exposures to rabies are advised to contact their county health agency. Telephone numbers may be found on the first page of your telephone book or in the "Government Listings" section. Additionally, county phone numbers are available at the State Health Department website: www.health.ny.gov (click on the "A-Z Index" and then "Rabies").

Questions regarding the submission of animal specimens for rabies testing should be directed to the county health agency. Technical information on rabies and rabies testing is available by contacting the State Health Department's Wadsworth Center Rabies Laboratory at (518) 869-4527 during normal business hours. For after-hours emergencies, the number to call is (518) 527-7369 or 7370. Information may also be obtained on the Rabies Laboratory website at: www.wadsworth.org/rabies.