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Officials warn public of rabies danger

COVINGTON - With outdoor activities in the summertime increasing the risk for exposure to rabies, health officials are warning the public to be vigilant.

Rabies is a viral disease transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. Rarely, the virus can also be transmitted through contamination of open wounds, abrasions or mucous membranes, such as the eyes or mouth.

The virus can affect the nervous system and cause symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, confusion, paralysis, salivating, hallucinations, difficulty swallowing and fear of water. Death usually occurs within days of the onset of symptoms.

The most recent local case of rabies occurred last year when a Porterdale man picked up a wounded bat and placed it in his pocket, according to Newton County Animal Control Director Teri Key-Hooson.

"He found it on the ground and picked it up. He thought he was helping it," she said.

The bat tested positive for rabies and the man had to undergo treatment, she said.

Bats have tiny, needle sharp teeth, so it's not always possible to know when you've been bitten, she said, adding it's best to let them be.

Key-Hooson recommended that pet owners make sure their animals are up to date on their rabies vaccinations. She also said it's best not to leave food outside that could attract animals.

Finally, anyone who sees what they consider unusual behavior by wildlife should call Animal Control at 770-786-9514. If Animal Control is closed, Key-Hooson advised to call 911.

Anyone who thinks he or she has been exposed to rabies should seek medical treatment immediately. A health care provider will decide whether to begin treatment, which includes rabies vaccinations.

Recently, a vaccine advisory committee recommended that people exposed to rabies need only four vaccinations rather than the five currently recommended. The vaccinations are usually given in the arm or thigh.

According to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, between 20,000 and 40,000 Americans are exposed to rabies each year. About 1,000 of those people get three to four shots, and none have developed rabies, the committee found.

The number of U.S. deaths has declined to about two or three per year.

It's quick medical intervention that makes the difference.

There have been no vaccine failures in the United States when the post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) vaccine was given promptly and appropriately after an exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In the United States, cats typically pose a greater risk of having rabies than dogs. Bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes also pose a risk.

The CDC recommends keeping rabies vaccinations up to date for all cats, ferrets and dogs. Keeping pets under direct supervision and calling animal control to remove stray animals from the neighborhood are also good prevention methods.

Any animal bitten or scratched by either a wild, carnivorous mammal or a bat that is not available for testing should be regarded as having been exposed to rabies, according to the CDC. Unvaccinated dogs, cats and ferrets exposed to a rabid animal should be euthanized immediately or placed in strict isolation for six months and vaccinated one month before being released. Animals with expired vaccinations need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Dogs and cats that are currently vaccinated should be kept under observation for 45 days.

For more information, visit www.cdc.gov/RABIES/.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.