- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

Health and animal control officials say metropolitan area residents, especially in the suburbs, risk contracting rabies from raccoons, skunks, foxes and other wildlife.

As communities push deeper into forests, the chances for rabies infections increase, said Ann Beam, administrative assistant at the Arlington County Animal Welfare League.

“Generally speaking, rabies is definitely on the rise,” Miss Beam said. “That’s because we are crowding wildlife’s environment. So the cause of exposure is proximity.”

However, health officials say that human rabies cases are not spiraling out of control.

“Rabies in people is very, very rare. Last year in the U.S. there were only three people with rabies,” said Tina Lacy, a nurse administrator for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.

The death of a 25-year-old Virginia man in March was attributed to a rabies infection, but the only other rabies-attributed deaths in the state occurred in 1956 and 1998, the Virginia Department of Public Health reported.

The last fatal rabies infection in Maryland occurred in Cecil County, where a woman contracted the disease from a bat in 1976. “The number [of human infections] is not jumping,” Miss Lacy said.

Health officials said more people are getting rabies vaccinations as soon as they think they may have encountered a rabid animal, stemming an increase in infections.

From 1999 to 2000, there was a 25 percent increase in the number of Virginians who sought vaccination because they suspected they had been exposed to the virus. The number of animals in the state that tested positive for rabies rose from 502 to 590 from 2001 to 2002, said Michelle Stoll, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Public Health.

“We know [rabid raccoons] are endemic in Arlington County,” said Glen Rutherford, chief of environmental health in Arlington County. “[They] are probably going to remain endemic in this area.”

It is hard to pinpoint the number of infected animals because “to test every roadkill is a waste of state resources,” Mr. Rutherford said.

Miss Beam said her organization has handled nine rabies cases in animals this year, compared with eight total last year. “We’re up a bit,” she said.

The rabies virus — carried in the saliva of a rabid animal and usually passed on through animal bites — attacks the central nervous system, the D.C. Department of Health says. The disease leads to convulsions, paralysis and death.

It is not always easy to detect an infected animal because the symptoms may not surface for two weeks or more. The most common signs are foaming at the mouth and erratic behavior, such as attacking stationary objects or gnawing on their own limbs.

The disease is almost always fatal after symptoms appear, so early treatment is essential. People who come into contact with an animal that may have rabies should wash any wounds with soap and water and contact the health department or a medical facility. Treatment normally includes five post-exposure vaccinations over 28 days.

Health officials say that the best ways to prevent the disease is to avoid handling wild animals and keeping trash out of the open. People should not try to nurse sick animals but should call animal control, local police or an animal-rescue agency if they suspect rabies.

“I don’t want people to be afraid to go out and walk their dog because they fear a rabid raccoon is hiding behind a bush,” said Bob Custard, environmental health manager for the Alexandria Health Department. “But if they see an animal acting strangely, walking around like they are drunk or biting their car tires, call the animal control office so they can take care of it.”

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