It may seem odd to discuss a historic but on-going virus in the middle of a novel pandemic. There are at least two reasons to do so: 1) the summer season is upon us so families will be outdoors where the disease is found, and 2) the trends in cases shows how a disease can be reduced when society takes it seriously. That disease is rabies.
Rabies affects a wide range of mammals, including people. Individuals get this virus when they are bit or scratched by an infected animal. Left untreated, rabies is one of the world’s most deadly diseases since it is nearly 100% fatal if treatments don’t occur before symptoms develop. The vaccination for rabies was initially developed by Louis Pasteur in 1885 and now consists of four shots given over a two-week period.
While few Americans get rabies, worldwide the virus kills nearly 60,000 people a year. This does not mean it isn’t a concern in the U.S. Approximately 40,000 Americans receive treatment for rabies each year after they are bit by a wild animal.
Most of the worldwide rabies cases are due to domestic and feral dog bites. This was also the most common origin of the virus in the United States until the late 1940s. At that time states started to require dogs be vaccinated against rabies. Now, every state has a law requiring dogs, cats, and ferrets have these shots. In the 1940s, approximately 10,000 domestic animals a year got rabies; now that is less than 10. In the 1940s, there were around 45 cases of rabies in human each year. Since 2009, the U.S. has seen an average of less than two human cases a year. I should note that one of the last cases (2018) did occur in Utah.
The disease is now most often found in raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats. This should not be taken to mean the virus is common. In 2018 there were 27,483 bats tested for rabies, of which only 1,635 were positive (6%). There were also 12,818 raccoons tested and 1,499 tested positive (12%). These numbers may seem high, but they represent animals brought in to be tested because they were acting in an erratic manner or otherwise thought to be rabid.
My only encounter with an animal I thought was rabid occurred 40 years ago on an early November morning at Farmington Bay.
On that day a striped skunk came running at me across a spit of dry land. When it showed no fear of me and closed to within 10 yards, I shot it. It should be noted that in my approximately 50 other close encounters with skunks since that time, all of our meetings have gone the way you would expect. The skunk’s tail goes up and I run away at the same time they do.
The primary reservoir of rabies in Utah and Idaho is the bat population. In 2018 rabies were detected in 14 wild animals in Utah and 12 in Idaho; all were bats. The primary vector of rabies does differ by regions. Raccoons are the most common along the East Coast, skunks in the Midwest and Southeast, foxes in Alaska, with bats scattered across many other states.
To reduce the already low number of wild animals with rabies in this country, in 2018 nearly 9 million baits laced with rabies treatment were set out in the east to protect raccoons from this virus. Similarly, nearly one million treated baits were placed along the Mexican border to reduce the chance that canine rabies would be reintroduced to this country. This approach has been shown to be effective in reducing the presence of rabies in the U.S.
So what should your family do if they are camping or hiking this summer and encounter an erratically acting racoon, fox, skunk, bat, or other mammal? The right answer is to avoid it like you should all wild animals. The risk of rabies also needs to be clearly explained to all kids in your group. These individuals are the most likely to be curious and get too close to a wild animal. If a wild mammal does somehow end up biting or scratching someone in the group, make every effort to capture and kill the animal so it can be tested for the presence of rabies. If the animal can’t be captured, the best course of action for anyone who get bit or scratched by a wild mammal is to get treated for rabies.
I hope everyone has a safe and fun Fourth of July weekend. We all deserve it given the trials of the last few months.