Southwest Public Health District promotes rabies awareness

Published 4:34 pm Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Recent rabies exposures in Southwest Health District are prompting Public Health to raise awareness about the potentially fatal virus among residents in its 14 counties.

“In the past two weeks, we have seen a pet exposed to a rabid raccoon and people exposed to what are being treated as potentially infected bats,” said Southwest Health District Environmental Health Director Dewayne Tanner. “The exposures occurred in different counties.”

The pet exposure happened in Dougherty County, while the humans were exposed in Colquitt County, he said.

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“Unfortunately, rabies is endemic, or widespread, in our wild animal population,” Tanner said. “Along with raccoons and bats, the virus is also prevalent in skunks, foxes, bobcats and coyotes.”

When wildlife interacts with strays or unvaccinated pets, the rabies virus can be transmitted, he explained.

“We are concerned about people being exposed to the rabies virus through pets whose vaccinations are not up-to-date, through stray animals that have not been vaccinated and through wild animals, any of which could catch the infection and pass it along through their saliva,” he said.

Tanner advised residents to avoid wildlife that behave oddly (such as nocturnal animals being out during daylight hours or wild animals seeking human interaction). The raccoon that attacked a pet in Dougherty County, for example, was acting unusually aggressively, he said.

“Please don’t handle young animals, either,” he said. “Chances are the parents are nearby and will return when you leave.”

Also, protective animal parents might attack, or parents might abandon offspring handled by humans, Tanner observed.

“In the case of bats, here in Georgia, when our bat species bite humans, it is similar to being bitten by a mosquito,” he said. “You may not notice it. The general policy is that if you wake up in a room and there is a bat in the room with you, the recommendation is that you receive prophylaxis treatment.”

With treatment, rabies is preventable. However, without it, the disease is considered 100 percent fatal.

Anyone bitten by wild animals or strays should seek immediate medical attention and contact the county health department and law enforcement, Tanner said. “You should not attempt to catch the animal yourself. The authorities will handle that so that it can be tested for rabies.”

The best protection against rabies exposure is to vaccinate pets, he said. “The most heart-breaking conversations I have had is telling pet owners that they are going to have to euthanize their beloved pets because of rabies. If that animal had just received its annual rabies vaccination, it would have been a happy ending instead of a tragedy.”

Georgia law requires dogs and cats three months old and older to be vaccinated against rabies. Pet ferrets should also receive rabies inoculations, as should susceptible livestock, Tanner said. For more information about rabies, contact your county health department.