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Raccoon Rabies Claims First Life in U.S.

Experts don't know how Virginia man got infected

THURSDAY, Nov. 13, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- The government on Thursday announced the first documented death from raccoon-related rabies in the United States.

The victim, a 25-year-old Virginia man who had previously been otherwise healthy, died on March 10, 2003, after being ill for three weeks. He had been diagnosed with meningoencephalitis, but the cause of that was not known at the time.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested tissue samples from the man, and further tests confirmed the diagnosis of rabies. Genetic sequencing by the CDC "identified a rabies virus variant associated with raccoons."

According to the CDC, death from rabies is rare in the United States, but if not treated is fatal.

How the Virginia man got the infection is not known. He was an office worker who lived, worked and played in Northern Virginia, where rabies is endemic among raccoons. But family members and acquaintances told investigators that he was not much of an outdoorsman. Officials speculate that he may have come in contact with the animal while camping, taking out the trash, or from a wood pile.

Details of the case appear in the Nov. 14 issue of the CDC's publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Raccoons have made up the largest percentage of animal rabies cases reported to CDC since 1990. In 1998, 44 percent of all rabies cases among animals in the United States occurred among raccoons, according to the agency.

From 1990 to 1998, 35,264 cases of raccoon rabies were reported. Of those 35,033 (99 percent) occurred in eastern states where raccoon rabies is enzootic, the CDC reports.

"We've got raccoon rabies from southern Ontario, Canada, all the way to southern Florida, and from the Great Lakes to the East Coast. In all, 20 states are involved," says Dr. Charles Rupprecht, a researcher from the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases.

Rupprecht believes that the Appalachian Mountains are serving as a natural boundary to prevent raccoon rabies from spreading further west. That is because the raccoon population is less dense in the mountain areas, he says.

The CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are trying to prevent the spread of raccoon rabies by placing rabies vaccine-laced raccoon bait along the Appalachians.

"Eventually, there will be a line of bait going from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. When this barrier is in place, then we will start filling in the area from the mountains to the Atlantic," Rupprecht says.

"The only thing that is typical of rabies is atypical behavior," Rupprecht notes. For example, he says, watch for a shy animal that is aggressive, unsteady on its feet, or is reluctant to move. The rabid animal may attack inanimate objects, or pets, he adds.

If you see such an animal, report it to your local health authorities, or animal control, Rupprecht advises.

If your pet is bitten by a rabid raccoon, and has not been vaccinated for rabies, it can transfer rabies should it bite you. In rare cases, rabies can be transmitted to humans through contact with an animal's saliva. This can happen if saliva enters an open wound or a mucus membrane, which are found in the eyes or mouth.

If a rabid animal bites you, the first step is to wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water, Rupprecht says. Then you should contact your doctor.

Rabies treatment consists of one dose of rabies immune globulin, injected at the site of the wound, followed by a series of vaccine injections given over several weeks.

The incubation period for rabies can range from one to three months to a year or more, Rupprecht says. Once symptoms appear, death is inevitable, he adds.

To prevent rabies, Rupprecht advises avoiding exposure to suspicious animals, vaccinating and supervising pets, and getting prompt medical attention if you are bitten.

If you come into contact with a bat or a raccoon, check to see whether your skin has been broken. In some cases of rabies spread by bats, the victims didn't think much of the bite because it was so small it resembled that of an insect.

More information

To learn more about rabies, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To see how one state is dealing with raccoon rabies, go to the Virginia Department of Health.

SOURCES: Charles Rupprecht, V.M.D., Ph.D., National Center for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Nov. 14, 2003, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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