Raccoons And Rabies: An Eastern Urban Threat

The spread of raccoon habitats to eastern urban areas increases the health problems and threats associated with humans and possible contact with raccoons and rabies.
By David Petersen
January/February 1987
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The current rabies epidemic seems to be rolling north like a wave.
PHOTO: LEONARD LEE RUE/ ANIMALS ANIMALS
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The ever-adaptable raccoon is comfortable in rural or urban settings. Raccoons are spreading to the east and with them comes the threat of rabies. 

Raccoons and Rabies: An Eastern Urban Threat

Most people think of dogs, skunks, and bats as the primary carriers of rabies (once commonly known as hydrophobia because of its victims' apparent fear of water), but this dreaded viral disease can infect most any mammal and, if untreated, guarantees a slow, painful, very messy death.

The good news is that the traumatic series of 13 injections in the stomach required for persons bitten by animals suspected of being rabid has been relegated to history along with other medieval tortures. Instead, medical science has recently given us a prophylaxis that's 100% effective when administered promptly, and, best of all, requires only five injections (plus one or more injections of serum globulin) in the arm rather than the stomach.

The not-so-good news is that, with the recent and drastic increase in the population of raccoons in Washington and other eastern cities, the threat of raccoons and rabies has increased dramatically throughout the mid-Atlantic area.

One researcher who is closely monitoring this epizootic (an epidemic among animals) of raccoons and rabies is Dr. Suzanne Jenkins, assistant state epidemiologist for Virginia and a veterinarian epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Dr. Jenkins points out that rabies is always with us, generally dozing but rousing from time to time to cause a ruckus. The current outbreak among urban raccoons began with a single case in West Virginia in 1977 and spread rapidly to Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. During the past decade, the numbers of rabid raccoons found in the mid-Atlantic region are increasing (see the chart in the image gallery).

As the numbers in the chart show, the epizootic peaked in 1983 and has been gradually decreasing since. Still, 665 verified cases of raccoon rabies during the first six months of the past year are nothing to sneeze at, and suggest that the total for 1986 will exceed that for 1985, reversing the decline. The outbreak appears to be rolling like a wave northward, and even as the mid-Atlantic epizootic ebbs somewhat in its southern extreme, the incidence of raccoon rabies in Pennsylvania and other north-eastern states is on the rise. Meanwhile, Florida is the center of a separate mini-epizootic that's more tenacious (it's been around for a quarter of a century or so) and less urban.

In spite of their numbers, rabid raccoons rarely pose a direct threat to humans. Dr. Jenkins and her associates worry most about cats and dogs that haven't been inoculated against rabies contracting the disease from infected raccoons and passing it on to their owners. "It's a real problem for health professionals and animal control agencies," says Jenkins. "We can't reassure the public that we have things under control, because we don't. As yet there's no direct control method for raccoon rabies. Research teams in several areas are working to find a way to protect wildlife with an oral rabies vaccine placed in bait, but—though preliminary results are encouraging—this approach doesn't promise to provide a remedy in the near future."

What can people living in high-risk areas do to protect themselves, their families, and their pets from the threat of rabies? "Our current thrust," Dr. Jenkins says, "is to convince people to have their pets vaccinated against rabies and to leave wild animals alone—to avoid feeding raccoons or allowing them to get into garbage containers, and to discourage the animals from nesting in residential areas. But even with all the publicity we've generated concerning this problem, people still find and adopt baby raccoons, or pick up what they think is an injured animal and get bitten and possibly infected with rabies."

If you or a member of your family should be bitten by any animal, wash the wound thoroughly and contact a doctor immediately. If the animal is still lurking about, ask your local animal control authorities to pick it up and examine it for rabies—which just might spare you a lot of worry and needle holes.


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