BANGOR, Maine — Despite the attention paid to the young woman who fended off a rabid raccoon after being attacked while running, there’s good news: the last case of human rabies in Maine occurred in 1937.
Still, it’s a good time to learn about the virus, ways to detect it and ways to prevent it in case you run into a rabid animal.
Dr. Rachael Fiske, the Assistant State Veterinarian in the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said rabies symptoms vary greatly and can make the animal act quiet and approachable or very aggressive. Fiske said it may be easier to notice a change in a pet’s temperament versus wildlife.
“Certainly, [symptoms can be] anything from a subtle temperament change to whether it’s acting wilder or more aggressive than normal to acting lethargic or acting slower than normal. That will oftentimes progress to more aggression and irritability, or they may vocalize and cry out at inappropriate times,” said Fiske.
The time period between getting bitten and showing clinical symptoms — referred to as incubation period — of rabies can vary as much as the symptoms themselves. The rabies virus doesn’t travel through the bloodstream, but through nerves instead. Once the rabid animal has bitten another animal or person, it moves to the muscle then through the nerves until it reaches the spinal cord and travels up to the brain. Once the virus reaches the brain, it’s fatal. In the brain, the virus multiples and affects the body. The incubation period can vary based on the distance between the bite and the brain.
“If a person was bit on their head or neck, they’re more likely to show signs much sooner than if they were bit on their big toe,” said Fiske.
Fiske said the incubation period of a dog is between two weeks to six months. Humans usually have an incubation period of three to eight weeks.
So far this year in Maine, 22 animals have tested positive for rabies. Of those, 14 were raccoons. There was also one grey fox, three red foxes and four skunks. Penobscot County has had the most cases of rabies with three out of the four cases in May.
Once an animal shows signs of rabies, death is imminent. There is no treatment for animals, even house pets, that can cure the rabies. Keeping the animals alive only increases the potential that they will infect another animal or human. Animals are euthanized, then their brains are tested for rabies to take appropriate measures for people the animal came in contact with.
“Human health has to take precedence over animal health, even if it is a pet, unfortunately, and so oftentimes we recommend euthanasia of that animal,” said Fiske.
For humans, exposure to rabies is less grim. Once a human has been bitten by a rabid animal, the rabies can be treated with post-exposure prophylaxis, or P.E.T. Along with the series of rabies vaccines, the victim is administered immune globulin. This boosts the immune system to prepare it for the virus that is about to come blazing.
“The first sign of rabies in humans are headaches and fever. Oftentimes, they’ll have numbness or a sort of different sensation at the bite-site. A lot of times if they’re bitten on the arm, or something, their arm may feel sort of numb and tingly,” said Fiske.
To prevent the virus from traveling through the nerves to the brain, the wound should be cleaned. “The best thing that you can do if you are bit by any animal is to wash with soap and water,” said Fiske.
Then, the victim should call the Maine Centers for Disease Control Epidemiologist, who will ask a series of questions to determine the appropriate measures to take. If the rabid animal is a wild animal, call the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. If it’s a pet, call the local animal control officer. Above all, do not handle a rabid animal yourself.
Almost every transmission of rabies is through bites or scratches. It is possible for the virus to be transmitted through saliva entering an open wound or a mucus membrane, like the eyes, nose or mouth, said Fiske. It cannot be transmitted through simple contact, such as petting.
“I think the biggest thing that human health professionals and CDC worry about are bats … their bites are so small that people don’t realize if they were sleeping, for instance, that they were bitten by a bat,” said Fiske.
Fiske said the best thing to do is to vaccinate your pets.
“Not only is it state law, it’s the best rabies prevention,” said Fiske. “The rabies vaccine is a great vaccine. No vaccine is 100 percent, but it’s an excellent vaccine at preventing this.”
You may also be comforted to know that animals may act strange and rabies-like, but are not infected. The CBC reported that approximately 120,000 animals are tested for rabies each year in the United States, but only 6 percent test positive.
“There are other viruses that cause animals to, for instance, behave oddly or aggressively or stumble around, etc. It’s out of the abundance of caution of well, it might be rabies, or it might be something completely different that’s not rabies, but we would rather test,” said Fiske.
If you would like to learn more about rabies or contact an epidemiologist, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. If you need to contact the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, their number is on their website. If you need to contact an animal control officer in Bangor, Maine, their number can also be found on their website.