Rabies: a public health success story


By Dawn Keller - Contributing columnist



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senior portraits, professional portrait


Only a few generations ago, a bite from a “mad” animal meant certain death. Today, thanks to the application of public health interventions, cases of rabies in domestic animals is sparse and human cases are even fewer.

Rabies is a virus that affects the nervous system of mammals. Early symptoms include strange behavior. A normally docile animal may appear aggressive, or a normally aggressive animal may be docile. As the virus spreads inside the affected animal, the symptoms progress into difficulty in coordination of movements such as staggering and seizures, then to difficulty swallowing, and excessive drooling. Transmission is usually through the saliva of the infected animal.

Even today, there is no cure for rabies. Once symptoms appear, the disease is nearly always fatal. This is why public health interventions are so important.

When a person seeks medical attention related to an animal bite, the medical provider is required to report the incident to the local health department. The health department will then contact the owner of the animal and arrange for a 10-day quarantine period. This is typically done at home and just means the animal should not be permitted to run free, nor introduced to any new animals or new people. During the 10-day period, the owners observe the animal for any signs of illness, strange behavior, or death and are required to report such back to the health department. If the animal shows no symptoms of rabies by the end of the 10th day, it can be safely assumed that it was not infected at the time it bit the human. This is the case in the vast majority of animal bite reports we receive.

Occasionally, there are cases where the animal cannot be quarantined. If the animal is reported as a stray and no owner can be located, the health department will advise the bite victim to notify their doctor that quarantine was not possible. It is then up to the medical provider to decide whether to begin the rabies prophylaxis injections. These shots can prevent the disease if given well ahead of the onset of symptoms.

If the animal is deceased, either by euthanasia or by natural causes, before the end of the 10th day, the health department will send the specimen to the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) Zoonotic Lab for a free rabies test. Consequently, if you find yourself in a position to euthanize an animal that has bitten someone, please leave the head undisturbed and contact the health department immediately.

Through these public health measures, the canine rabies virus has been practically eliminated in domestic animals. However, reservoirs of the virus still exist among some wild animal populations. Raccoons, bats and sometimes skunks and foxes are the typical wild animal carriers. If your domestic animal has a fight with a rabid wild animal, they will most likely contract the disease. This is why the Ohio Department of Health recommends having your dogs, cats and ferrets vaccinated regularly.

In an effort to help the community meet this recommendation, the Meigs County Health Department, in cooperation with local veterinarians, provides low cost rabies clinics during the month of June. If you would like notification of an upcoming rabies clinic or any other health department program, follow us on Facebook, or regularly check our website www.meigs-health.com.

The vaccinations, arranged quarantines, testing, and prophylaxis are all science based public health interventions directed to keep people safe from this once feared lethal disease. According to ODH, there hasn’t been a human case of rabies in Ohio since 1970. The system is working.

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By Dawn Keller

Contributing columnist

Dawn Keller is a registered sanitarian with the Meigs County Health Department.

Dawn Keller is a registered sanitarian with the Meigs County Health Department.