As spring turns into summer, Escambia County residents are being warned to avoid exposure to rabies by keeping away from wild and stray animals. A rabies alert is in effect for the Bayou Chico area.
The alert was issued after two people were attacked and injured by a stray cat, which followed a positive test on a raccoon found in the same area in January.
“Saturday we sent a cat over for testing and it came back positive,” said Louvi Donado, an Environmental Supervisor with the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County. “In this case, this animal was observed at the shelter. It was acting strangely, and so we were able to go get it tested.”
Some tips on keeping distant from rabies include: teaching your kids not to go near wild and stray animals; vaccinate your pets and keep them up-to-date, and spay or neuter your pet to reduce their tendency to roam or fight.
“Don’t feed animals outside; keep any types of garbage cans covered and lidded tightly to avoid stray animals from coming over to your yard or hanging around in areas where people could be hanging around,” said Donado. “Take notice of any stray animals and keep your animals inside if you can, and prevent any food from being outside.”
Rabies infects the central nervous system and without proper treatment can cause brain infection and death. The disease is transmitted by a bite or scratch, or by contact with mucous membranes such as in the eyes, nose, or mouth.
“There’s an incubation period that is a variable thing; sometimes it can be several days or sometimes it can actually be months. And these are kind of non-specific symptoms; you can’t tell it’s rabies at this point,” says Dr. Rob Patterson, Medical Director at Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart. “
“Fever, chills, malaise – which is just a feeling of un-wellness – muscle aches and weakness, fatigue, occasionally sore throat, nausea, vomiting,” Patterson said. “The same things you would get from the flu or any viral illness. And that can last a couple of days, maybe up to a week.”
The first move at home is to clean the wound. Medical treatment sometimes begins with the victim injected with rabies immune globulin. The shot can be given in the arm or thigh muscle, or at the location of the wound. Then, a series of shots are aimed at protecting from development of the infection, and given ASAP after the bite occurs.
“People who maybe have normal immune systems, they would get a vaccination four times; on day zero, 3, 7, and 14 – children or adults – that should be monitored,” said Patterson. “[Monitoring] can be started in the emergency department, but then could be continued at the health department or at their primary care office.”
Follow-up, says Patterson, involves a systematic check on the immunizations’ progress in battling the infection.
“If no symptoms ever develop -- which is the norm – then once the immunization complete, then patients might end up getting some serologic testing to make sure there’s no exposure [or] anything like that,” Patterson says. “If it’s a serious bite, every six months; if it’s low-risk, probably just as needed.”
Along with cats, raccoons, foxes, and bats are most frequently diagnosed with rabies in Florida. Others at high risk include dogs, bobcats, skunks, and otters. Stray and unvaccinated dogs and cats – due to their proximity to people -- pose a special risk. Patterson says the local Health Department keeps detailed records in keeping track of rabies cases.
“They monitor and work with us here at Children’s Hospital,” said Patterson. “Your pediatrician is a great source of information, and here at the Studer Family Children’s Hospital we have a pediatric infectious disease department that specializes in that, and all pediatric infections.”
Although potentially fatal, rabies is preventable through a number of simple measures. First, remember that you can’t always tell if an animal has the disease, so the Health Department’s Louvi Donado says -- hands off.
“Don’t do it yourself; stay away from the animals, get a professional person if there’s a stray animal out,” Donado says. “Call Animal Control to do that or if it’s a wild animal, [call] a private trapping company.”
To report an animal bite, call the Escambia Environmental Health office at 850-595-6700. More information on rabies and how to avoid it is available at www.EscambiaHealth.com.