Rabies Awareness Week Highlights Precautions

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 29, 2007

Less than a year after hundreds of Girl Scouts and their parents suffered a rabies scare at a Loudoun County campground, state health officials are warning of an increase in the number of confirmed infections among animals and spreading the word about ways to reduce the threat.

Through the annual Rabies Awareness Week, which began Monday, the state health department is working with local health and school officials to highlight ways that the disease spreads and offering advice on what to do if someone comes in contact with an infected animal.

The week started with a panel discussion of state and county officials in Fairfax City that representatives of Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington and Prince William counties attended.

Northern Virginia, with its ever-expanding suburbs pushing into areas populated by wildlife, is one of the prime areas for humans to come into contact with animals carrying the potentially deadly virus, officials said.

"Rabies is a year-round issue. Anytime that people come in contact with stray animals or the pets come into contact with stray animals, it's an issue," said David Goodfriend, director of the Loudoun County Health Department.

Last year, post-exposure rabies shots were administered to about 20 people in Loudoun, Goodfriend said.

Last August, nearly 1,000 parents in the metro area were alerted that their children might have been exposed to rabies during a Girl Scout outing at Camp Potomac Woods near Leesburg. The campers had been sleeping in quarters where bats were found, though none of the bats tested was found to have the virus. Health officials recommended the regimen of rabies shots for 20 of about 950 campers. In February, a woman walking on the W&OD trail in Leesburg was bitten by a rabid raccoon. Health officials also recommended that she be inoculated.

In 2006, post-exposure medical treatment was given to 1,074 people in Virginia as a precaution after encounters with suspicious bats, foxes, raccoons, cats, dogs and other animals, said Lucy H. Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health's regional office. The year before, medical officials treated 789 people. The commonwealth also reported 637 laboratory-confirmed rabies cases in animals in 2006, compared with 495 cases in 2005.

No humans had a confirmed infection.

Rabies, also known as hydrophobia, is caused by a virus that affects only warm-blooded animals. The virus, spread by an infected animal's saliva, homes in on the body's nerve cells and follows neurological pathways to the brain.

Although the brain appears to be unaffected by what is essentially a form of encephalitis, the virus wreaks havoc with the signals that the brain transmits to other organs, according to research in medical journals. Once symptoms appear, death is inevitable. Only one unvaccinated person -- a 15-year-old Wisconsin girl who was bitten by a bat in church in 2004 -- is known to have survived a rabies infection.

In that case, doctors induced a coma and gave the girl antiviral drugs and other treatment, and she survived with few noticeable aftereffects. But similar treatment given to another infected teenager last year -- a 16-year-old Texas boy who awoke to find a bat in his bedding -- failed to save his life.

At one time, dogs were the most frequent carriers of the disease, and remain so in many Third World countries, but vaccination requirements and animal control measures have reduced the odds that dogs will infect a person, officials said. "Wildlife is now the main reservoir of rabies in this country," Julia Murphy, public health veterinarian for the Virginia Department of Health, said last week.

These days, raccoons, foxes, skunks and stray or feral cats are the most common carriers of the disease, said Murphy, who was a panelist at a meeting Monday in Fairfax City for local public health, animal control and safety officials whose duties require them to deal with rabies.

From January to October 2006, officials conducted laboratory tests of 52 raccoons and found 25 positive for the virus, Ansel said.

Infected animals may act aggressively -- but sometimes can seem sluggish or sick. What often happens is that people try to help animals that appear sick or abandoned.

Bats account for a disproportionate number of human infections. Although laboratory testing has found that only about 1 percent of the bat population carries the virus, they can, because of their tiny teeth, infect someone without the person's knowledge, officials said. For that reason, post-exposure medical treatment has been given to people who awoke to find bats in their bedrooms, and public health officials routinely advise people to be treated if there is any doubt about whether they came into contact with a bat.

Staff writer Arianne Aryanpur contributed to this report.

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