Rabies, a virus typically spread by exposure to saliva from an infected animal, made a resurgence in the United States last year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that five people from across the country passed away from rabies complications, marking the highest total in 10 years.
The Florida Department of Health in Marion County is calling attention to this CDC report as Marion County health officials respond daily to a large volume of animal bites that could potentially lead to a rabies infection, if not addressed.
The department seeks to educate the community on what to look for with regards to a potentially rabid animal, how to reduce the risk of exposure, and what to do if potentially exposed, as rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms start.
In 2019, Marion County reported 54.2 cases of possible rabies exposure per 100,000 people. That was the sixth-highest rate among Florida’s 67 counties. Health Department data show that each year Marion’s rate of possible rabies exposures typically doubles or triples that of Florida as a whole.
In 2020 and 2021, the department investigated a combined total of 2,135 reports of potential rabies exposures in Marion County.
Victims in the majority of these cases did not require treatment either because the animal did not show symptoms after a quarantine period, the animal tested negative after a post-mortem examination, or the animal was not considered a carrier of the disease.
However, the department notified 462 people over that period that they were at risk from a potential rabies exposure and advised them to obtain post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, treatment. PEP is the series of shots administered to build up the patient’s immunity.
PEP is recommended when the animal tests positive for rabies, or when testing the animal is not possible because it could not be found for observation or testing or because its remains were unfit.
Types of animals
Dogs are often the animals most closely associated with a rabies infection, but canine-related rabies infections are rare in Florida due to a high vaccination rate among dogs. The most common carriers locally are raccoons, bats and cats, typically feral cats.
The department also has initiated investigations for possible rabies exposure because of human contact with foxes, squirrels, rats, rabbits, pigs, horses, opossums, goats, deer, coyotes and bears.
To prevent possible rabies infection, the Department of Health reminds county residents to take the following precautions:
- Avoid direct contact with wild animals. Never feed wild or stray animals, even by providing food sources outdoors. Feed your pets indoors.
- Supervise pets and do not allow them to run free. Secure livestock on your property.
- Get your pets and at-risk livestock vaccinated against rabies.
- Realize that rabies is not transmitted only through bites. People or animals can contract rabies through scratches or exposure to an infected animal’s saliva, such as from licks or a pet that has shared a food source with a positive carrier.
- If your pet or livestock is attacked by a wild animal or a stray you suspect is unvaccinated, you must wear gloves if you examine your pet. Do not let your animal contact other animals or people until the situation is handled by animal control or county health department staff.
- Bat-proof your home.
What to do if exposed
If you are bitten or scratched by an animal whose rabies status is unknown to you, wash the area with soap and water and control the bleeding, if any.
Seek medical attention immediately. But do not panic.
While urgent action is encouraged with a potential exposure, do not underestimate the situation. The CDC reported that four of the five individuals who passed away in 2021 did not receive PEP treatment because they either feared vaccines or did not think the injury was serious enough to warrant medical attention.
Report the incident to the Health Department, the county Animal Services Department, or local law enforcement. Those who suspect exposure are also encouraged to download and complete a PDF version of the department’s Report of Possible Rabies Exposure form.
The Florida Department of Health in Marion County can administer the rabies vaccine to individuals exposed to rabid or potentially rabid animals.