By Johnny Jackson
Authorities are urging pet owners to make sure their pets' rabies vaccinations are current.
The number of rabies cases has increased by 60 percent, so far, in 2008 compared to last year. State officials and veterinarians are investigating whether outbreaks are more prevalent, or if there is more awareness and increased diagnosis.
But rapid development of former wildlife areas may be a factor, according the Georgia Veterinary Medical Association (GVMA). "We have seen the number of rabid animals reported to the Georgia Division of Public Health undergo a cycle, but this year is already worse than last," said Dana Cole, a GVMA member and Georgia Division of Public Health veterinarian. "For the first six-and-a-half months of this year, we have had 215 positive rabies cases statewide, compared to 134 during the same time last year."
Cole added that more animals are being tested as well - 1,445 so far this year, up from 1,199 at this time last year. Officials have seen the number of positive cases fluctuate from 200 to 500 per year in the past two decades. In Hall County, the number of rabies cases normally reported has tripled.
For the past few decades, rabies has been endemic in raccoons and bats in Georgia. Henry County has seen three cases of rabies so far this year, The cases have been found in two raccoons and a fox in rural parts of McDonough and Locust Grove.
"We do pick up stray animals that have been involved in a bite for quarantine," said Vince Farah, department coordinator for Henry County Animal Care and Control. "Animals are not required to be in an enclosure, per se. But if they live in a highly wooded area, where animals are prone to come in contact with wild life, they are at increased risk. People who have their animals tethered are at high risk [for potential rabies infection]."
Rabies is a viral disease of mammals, and in Georgia, raccoons are the major source of the disease. The virus travels from the site of the bite to the brain, where it causes encephalopathy, and ultimately, death. The virus is transmitted by contact with the saliva of an infected animal, and symptoms develop within weeks to months.
Farah said it is recommended by the state that an animal that has not been vaccinated for rabies and comes in contact with an animal that has tested positive for rabies be euthanized or strictly quarantined for six months.
"It's very important they have their animals vaccinated for rabies," Farah reiterated. "We do require a vaccination tag on all animals - in order to adopt an animal from an animal shelter, it must be current on its rabies shots - because it is mandatory that any dogs, cats, or pets susceptible, be rabies vaccinated."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta also is notifying veterinary and health officials nationwide that the supply of human rabies vaccine is low.
GVMA and the CDC are asking the public to take steps to avoid exposure and conserve vaccine stockpiles. More vaccine should be available by October.
Owners should vaccinate pets and livestock. Rabies vaccines for dogs and cats are readily available and should be up to date. If a vaccinated animal is exposed to rabies, it simply needs a booster shot and observation for 45 days.
State and county laws require all domestic animals to be vaccinated for the virus, and vaccination tags be worn at all times on their collar or harness.
Authorities advise people to avoid contact with wild animals and teach children to do the same. By doing so, families can reduce the risk of rabies. Bats, skunks, raccoons, and foxes all can carry the disease. Also, pets should be watched when outdoors to ensure they do not come in contact with wild animals.
"People should always be cautious of any kind of animal they are not familiar with," Farah said. "Any time a person is bitten or scratched by an animal, they need to contact 911 and give a report."
Those bitten or otherwise exposed to an unfamiliar animal should seek medical help immediately. A veterinarian can evaluate the need for rabies testing; a doctor or health department can answer questions about human exposure and treatment.
Animals and pets displaying a change in behavior, both physical and mental, should be tested and monitored.
"And if all possible, try to figure out where the animal came from and try to keep up with its whereabouts," Farah added. "We would need that animal for testing so that people don't have to go through rabies treatment."
There are about 16 veterinarian offices throughout Henry County. Many are able to give rabies vaccinations to pets for a fee.
Henry County Animal Care and Control offers rabies vaccination certificates at a cost of $15 per pet. The certificates can be used at the veterinarian for a rabies shot. Animal Control also offers, by appointment only, sterilization clinics on the second and last Tuesday of each month. On those days, pet owners can walk in to receive $10 rabies vaccinations for their pets.
To learn more about rabies, visit the CDC web site. Or to learn more about local vaccinations and clinics, call Henry's Animal Control department at (770) 288 PETS (7387).
On the net:
Centers for Disease Control: www.CDC.gov