The Importance of Rabies Prevention

By Christian Sandrock, MD, MPH, Yolo County Health Officer
September 8, 2011

Last week, a colleague of mine was attacked by a raccoon in her back yard, in daylight, not long after a rabid skunk was found just blocks away. A few nights later, another raccoon attack was reported nearby. The raccoon remains at large.

My colleagues’ injuries were extensive and painful, but the real story was the anxiety and the rabies vaccination. A nocturnal wild animal, attacking in daylight, in an unprovoked manner during the summer always brings this fear and pain – along with four moderately painful shots or high mortality.

The summer months bring out wild animals, people and pets, with rabies following along for the ride.

Human rabies is exceedingly rare in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 55,000 deaths worldwide, with a mortality of nearly 100%. Even with rabies being rare in the U.S., why do we still see kids playing with stray cats or a dead bat on the way home from school? Or the family, walking on the greenbelt, attempting to make contact with a skunk? This wildlife-pet-human contact is common in suburban environments in the summer, and it carries the risk of rabies, and more importantly, a complex vaccination course and anxiety – all of this 100% preventable.

The first step for adequate rabies prevention is vaccination of the highest risk groups. Pets should be vaccinated yearly. Animal handlers, veterinarians, pathologists and laboratory workers are the high risk group we vaccinate routinely. As this is a rare but fatal and preventable disease, we target only the highest risk groups for pre-exposure vaccination, and this is a low cost, high yield strategy.

For the general public, we focus on significant animal exposure for vaccination, and if needed, immunoglobulin administration. Any unvaccinated member of the public who gets scratched or bit by a wild animal (bat, skunk, raccoon, squirrel) will get a vaccination and immunoglobulin series. For feral cats, dogs and other animals, vaccination is given for non-captured or positive tested animals. For vaccinated pets, no vaccine is necessary. This post exposure prophylaxis is the second layer of prevention and the most costly.

Rabies community education and intervention is the lowest cost, blanket layer of prevention. The removal of overnight outdoor food and protected garbage can keep away wild animals. Watching wildlife from a distance and reporting dead bats or unusual animal behavior to Yolo County Animal Services (530) 668-5287 is paramount. Children, especially, should not go near wild or feral animals. Limiting bat exposure will reduce pet and human contact with rabies. Bats, especially younger bats early in the summer, can fly into the house. Managing and removing the bat without contact is essential, along with boarding up your home to prevent bat colonies from entering. This usually includes an exit-protecting cover so bats can leave but not re-enter. Finally, any animal bite should be reported to the Yolo County Health Department (530) 666-8645.

Even though rabies is rare, it carries a high mortality, an extensive vaccination series and tons of anxiety. Through adequate pet vaccination and a community prevention plan, exposure to the virus, and post exposure prophylaxis can be greatly reduced. And in the end, our anxiety will be reduced as well.