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Raccoon-based rabies is an endemic in Chatham County

By Marissa Jelks
Posted Sunday, July 8, 2007

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Pittsboro, NC - Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system of any mammal infected. The nature of the virus drives the diseased animal to infect other animals with the virus before the host animal dies of the disease.

Raccoon-based rabies is an endemic here in Chatham County. This fatal viral disease may be transmitted to other mammalian species by way of bites, in what is known as the "spillover effect". Other wild mammals most likely to be affected are fox, skunks, groundhogs and beavers. Domestic animals easily infected by bites include primarily cats and dogs that are not currently vaccinated against rabies. Other domestic mammals such as horses are also likely to become diseased when bitten by rabid raccoons, fox, skunk, groundhogs or beavers. These wild animals are known as "terrestrial" rabies suspects.

Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can easily be transmitted to humans by way of bites by either wild or domestic animals diseased with rabies. Any animal or human that becomes diseased with rabies will die, in that rabies is 99.9% fatal.

The rabies virus is present in the saliva of animals diseased with rabies.

Rabid animals are often very aggressive, actively seeking out and attacking and biting other mammals, including humans. This behavior is known as the "furious" state of the rabies disease. While bites are the usual way in which rabies is transmitted, there is evidence that indicates non-bite contact with the saliva of a rabid animal can lead to infection in the other mammalian species including humans.

Bats are also known to carry and be diseased with rabies. While not "terrestrial", all bat populations are highly susceptible to disease by rabies and can easily transmit the disease to other mammals, including humans. Contact between bats and humans almost always occur when bats invade peoples' homes and are present when those people are sleeping.

Dogs are known as a "buffer species" between wildlife rabies suspect species and humans. Fortunately, in this modern age, a very effective vaccine is available for both dogs and cats that will protect them from rabies, preventing them from getting the disease even when bitten by a rabid animal.

State law requires that all dog and cat owners/keepers vaccinate all dogs and cats under their control against rabies under a prescribed schedule. A "keeper" is anyone who feeds and otherwise "harbors" a dog or cat on his/her property. (It is illegal for anyone in NC to "keep" any wild animal species indigenous to NC. That includes raccoons, fox, skunks, groundhogs and so on).

The last person to die of rabies in NC was a woman bitten by her own dog in Cherokee County in 1955 toward the end of what was then a canine rabies pandemic that raged across the South from the 1930's well into the 1950's.

The legislature responded to that pandemic by writing effective public health laws well designed to protect the public from infection and disease by rabies by way of this requirement that all dogs and cats be vaccinated against rabies. These vaccination requirements and their enforcement by local public health departments and their animal control efforts have worked well against the current raccoon-based wildlife rabies pandemic that first entered NC in 1991 and has since spread to every corner of our state. Since 1996, when wildlife rabies first came to Chatham County, local animal control personnel have executed an effective wildlife and domestic rabies control and management program, second to none.

Effective protection against wildlife (and domestic) rabies is contingent upon these primary elements:

* ALL dogs and cats over the age of four months MUST be vaccinated against rabies. Stray and unvaccinated animals must, by law, be reported to animal control for pick-up and impoundment.

* ALL bites by dogs or cats or wildlife to humans MUST be reported to animal control.

* Residents must be aware that ALL raccoons, fox, skunks, groundhogs and unvaccinated dogs and cats are rabies suspects and must be regarded as such. These wildlife species are generally nocturnal. When seen out and about in the daytime they should be regarded as suspect and great care should be taken to avoid any potential contact.

* Houses should be secured so as to preclude the entry of any rabies suspect species. That means all house attic and crawlspace ventilation openings MUST be covered by screens or grills so that no animals may enter these spaces.

For more information on rabies, please contact John Sauls at 919-542-8234.

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Raccoon-based rabies is an endemic in Chatham County