Recent Augusta area rabies cases highlight need for pet vaccinations

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Rabies cases in wild animals occur each year, but the unusual, back-to-back confirmations of the virus in a dog and cat in the Augusta area have some officials concerned the disease could be on the rise.

“We know the rabies virus is alive and well, but you don’t usually see it in domestic animals,” said Randy Wischard, the environmental health section manager of the Richmond County Health Department.

Earlier this week, officials confirmed the disease in a stray cat that attacked and scratched a woman near Milledgeville and Kissingbower roads – the first such case in a cat in recent memory.

Although it is only the third rabies confirmation in Richmond County this year, which is about average, the cat case comes after confirmation of the disease in a Labrador retriever hit by a school bus in Columbia County’s Grovetown area Oct. 17.

The dog, a 2-year-old family pet that had not been vaccinated, bit one of several people who tried to help after the accident, said Linda Glascock, the county’s animal services manager.

It was euthanized and later tested positive for rabies.

“It’s the first dog case here in at least 25 or 30 years,” Glascock said. “People say it’s hard to believe, especially since this was a pet, with no symptoms, in a family with three children.”

So far this year, there have been just three rabies cases in Columbia County, including the dog. The other two involved raccoons.

By comparison, there were two cases last year – a raccoon and one bat – and seven cases in 2009, involving three foxes, three raccoons and one bat.

The highest number of cases – 12 – occurred in 2008. One of those cases involved a coyote, the only such occurrence statewide that year.

It is critical that pet owners maintain up-to-date immunizations, Glascock said. Cases where a pet that has not been vaccinated has been exposed to a rabid animal can result in having the pet euthanized.

“I tell people the key to everything is vaccination, vaccination, vaccination,” she said.

County officials are in the process of organizing a rabies vaccination clinic in early to mid-December, in which pet owners can have their animals vaccinated for just $5. The time and date is not final, she said, but will be announced soon.

Aiken County is also a major center for rabies cases, according to data provided by Adam Myrick of the S.C. Department of Health & Environmental Control.

So far this year, eight confirmations place Aiken County tied with Abbeville County for the highest number in the state, with no reported cases this year in nearby Edgefield and McCormick counties.

Worldwide, about 97 percent of rabies cases come from dog bites. In the United States, however, animal control and vaccination programs have effectively eliminated domestic dogs as carriers, underscoring the unusual nature of the Columbia County case.

Rabies in humans is even rarer. During 2000-08, 27 cases of human rabies were reported in the United States, including one case in Georgia in 2000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Among them, 71 percent were associated with bats.

Rabies: Some background

Description: Untreated rabies causes an acute viral encephalomyelitis in mammals that progresses to death.

Variations: The rabies virus strains circulating in Georgia are the raccoon variant and bat variants. These viruses have been associated with infections in many other species, including skunks, coyotes, bobcats, dogs and cats.

Primary carriers: foxes, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, and insectivorous bats with occasional spillover to domestic animals (e.g., dogs, cats, livestock) and humans. Rabbits and rodents rarely develop infection.

Mode of Transmission: Rabies is usually transmitted by the bite of a rabid animal via saliva containing the virus.

Incubation period: one to three months, but can vary widely because of the strain of virus, severity of the bite wound, richness of the nerve supply in the area of the bite, and distance of the bite from the brain

Early symptoms can include: fever, headache, tingling or numbing sensation in a limb. Later signs can include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing and hydrophobia (fear of water) might appear.

Source: Georgia Department of Community Health

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