Animal control, law enforcement, veterinarians and public health officials came to Cartersville Wednesday to discuss the dangers of rabies and how to prevent its spread. Presenters from across the state examined trends in the disease as well as what can be done to curtail its circulation.
Northwest Georgia Public Health reported 31 cases of rabid animals positively tested in 2010 with 378 cases statewide. Although the state has seen a decrease in confirmed cases, last year was northwest Georgia's highest rate since 2003. The problem persists as seen in Floyd County where five cases were confirmed in 2010 while three have already been registered in the first three months of 2011.
State Public Health Veterinarian Julie Gabel gave an overview of the disease and its dangers, reminding those in attendance that the disease, if contracted, is almost always deadly.
"Rabies is a terrifying and almost 100 percent fatal viral disease," Gabel said. "This disease causes many, many deaths throughout the world each year."
Due to vaccination and other preventative programs as well as access to adequate health care with post-exposure treatment, the United States sees a small number of cases annually, only four in 2009, one of which was contracted abroad. Even though no cure exists once the disease has incubated and been fully contracted, the only two survivor accounts in America have both occurred this decade.
The rabies virus is transmitted from animals to humans by biting. The virus is only contagious or symptomatic after the incubation period, which can last several months, with symptoms setting in during the victim's final days.
Collected data for confirmed cases is expected to be just the tip of the iceberg as most cases of rabies exist in wild animals, most notably raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes. More than 40,000 Americans are successfully treated each year during the incubation period soon after an animal bite with a post-exposure prophylaxis.
Certain species carry specific variants of the disease creating what is called a reservoir for the virus. For the East Coast, raccoons have become the reservoir for rabies, spreading the disease from Florida in the 1950s all the way to Maine. Before aggressive steps were taken in fighting the spread of raccoon variant rabies, the disease was estimated to travel 25 miles each year.
Although raccoons are the most commonly infected animals in the Southeast, bats are the most common point-source for human contraction of the disease across the country. Their small size, some weighing as little as a third of an ounce, can result in unnoticed bites. Raccoons, bats and other wildlife serve as the source of contraction to domesticated animals, including pets and livestock.
"It's all over the place in wildlife. It's what we call an endemic disease," Gabel said. "What we see in domestic animals is really just a spill-over of what's in the wildlife population."
Of the 31 confirmed cases in northwest Georgia for 2010, only four of those were domesticated animals, all of which were found in cats. Vaccination programs serve to keep the number low as officials urge pet owners to vaccinate regularly and maintain records.
"We vaccinate our animals to protect them, but more importantly, we vaccinate our animals to protect ourselves, the human race," said Richard Dixon, D.V.M. East Rome Animal Clinic.
Other means of prevention include avoiding wildlife and refraining from leaving pet food outdoors where it can attract wildlife to populated areas.
Also speaking Wednesday was Odin Stephens, wildlife biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services. Stephens explained efforts directed by the USDA to eventually eradicate the disease by vaccinating wildlife. After successfully eliminating canine variant rabies plaguing coyotes in Texas, the USDA has employed a similar strategy spreading oral vaccine packets covered in fish meal in problem areas from planes and trucks.
"The ultimate goal is to eliminate the raccoon rabies variant," Stephens said. "It'll take a while, but it is possible. We have created a barrier and now we just have to push it southeast."
Evaluation and Support Director for the Georgia Department of Community Health Tim Callahan is developing a program to more efficiently track and report animal bite cases. Facing a challenge in consistent and timely reporting from investigative agencies, the Department of Public Health is working to release a centralized, web-based searchable database listing animal bite cases.
"The potential cases of rabies is a little misassessed," Callahan said. "Even though animal bite reporting is state-mandated, it's not happening.
"This is really the only disease we specifically deal with that has a 100 percent death rate, so we want to make sure we do it right."
The summit provided an informal discussion atmosphere along with information from state officials for a continuing education session attended by county public health departments, law enforcement, veterinarians, emergency dispatch, animal control and others connected to the issue at hand. District Environmental Health Director with Northwest Georgia Public Health Tim Allee said the summits have been a normal part of interagency dialogue, including three meetings in the past 10 years although the last session was almost five years ago.
"It's just to bring all of our partners together to make sure our communication is strengthened so that we can respond to those animal bite cases rapidly and be able to protect the citizens in our community," Allee said.
For more information contact Northwest Georgia Public Health at 706-295-6651 or visit www.nwgapublichealth.org/env/rabies.htm. More information is available at www.cdc.gov/rabies.