SNOW HILL – Eleven cases of rabies have been confirmed so far this year, showing that the rabies epidemic has not abated despite the winter weather.
Rabies continues to increase and threaten humans and animals in Worcester County, Health Officer Debbie Goeller told the County Commissioners Tuesday.
Worcester County sees between 10 and 20 cases of rabies in animals every year.
“In 2009, we jumped to 52. This is a dramatic and significant increase for us,” said Goeller.
Twenty-six people received post-exposure treatment in 2009.
Thirty-five unvaccinated cats and four unvaccinated dogs were euthanized for rabies exposure last year.
Many more vaccinated pet animals, which encountered rabid animals, went through a 45-day quarantine, while a few pets were put through a six-month strict quarantine.
Rabies cases usually die down over the winter, but that trend was not found in the county this year.
“The beginning of 2010 is not at all encouraging,” Goeller said.
So far this year, the Worcester County Health Department has found 11 confirmed cases of rabies and had six suspected cases where the carrier was not caught. Last year at this time, health officials had confirmed two cases with three suspected. It took until the summer to reach the same number of confirmed cases as have already been seen this year.
Suspected cases are animals that are observed displaying rabid behavior, but which disappear or cannot be caught for testing. Most of those animals will die soon, health department officials said.
“They will not survive for long with rabies,” Goeller said.
Raccoons take 17 days on average to die from rabies, and it can take longer in other species.
Dead animals can be infectious for a short time, Goeller said, but the rabies virus does not survive for long in dead animals.
The health department has conducted 150 investigations since the epidemic started, covering 598 pets in the vicinity, and are finding some disturbing information.
Many pets are unvaccinated, Goeller said. Investigations found 68 percent of cats unvaccinated or with expired vaccinations. Dogs encountered in investigations have a 42-percent unvaccinated or expired rate.
“That number is too high. We need to do a much better job of people getting their domestic animals vaccinated,” Goeller.
Rabies cases cost money. The health department spent about $100,000 on rabies investigations last year.
“It is a very expensive proposition when people have been exposed,” said Goeller.
Post-exposure treatment for humans costs $1,700 for the vaccine alone. A first visit to an emergency room for rabies exposure can cost $4,300.
The county needs to increase vaccination of domestic animals, Goeller said, as part of a multi-pronged approach. Last year, the county held five rabies vaccination clinics, at $5 per animal. Normally, the county only holds four clinics, but added one in the summer because of high numbers of rabies cases.
A fifth of the animals vaccinated at those clinics come from outside the county, Goeller said. Those pet owners could be charged $10 instead of $5, it was suggested. However, Goeller, noted, it does benefit the county to have neighboring pet owners on the county borders vaccinate their animals, and she does not want to discourage them.
“It’s still cheaper than going to the doctor’s office,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
Goeller suggested the county authorize more clinics for the coming seasons.
“I do think we need to increase our vaccination clinics. Maybe try to go to eight this year if we can,” Goeller said.
The health department also wants to increase public awareness and education, review animal ordinances for changes and develop a way to handle feral and semi-feral cat populations.
As recently as one month ago, Goeller heard complaints from people who did not know there is rabies in the area.
Pet owners might need to be held more liable for not vaccinating their pets or letting vaccinations expire, Goeller said.
People can be cited if they fail to get their animal vaccinated and be fined $100.
Goeller would like to see a committee or task force formed, in part to work out a way to handle feral cats. Some of the feral cat colonies are fed by cat rescue groups and those cats are even neutered and spayed, but keeping track of vaccinations in that population is difficult.
The commissioners gave Goeller their blessing to proceed with the task force.
No matter what the county does, rabies is here to stay.
“Once we have it, and we have it, we’re not going to be able to eradicate it,” said Goeller.