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The Mysteries of Rabies

Raccoons in Oregon are not carriers, yet

I just read about rabid raccoons in the July 26 News Briefs and I have some personal opinions on this article. Many, many years ago, I worked as a microbiologist, assisting in the examination of suspected rabid animals that had bitten people. While doing so, I learned a lot about the disease of rabies and its ramifications. I would always read the case histories of the specimens, and they provided very helpful background information.

I believe that in instances in which a human life could hang in the balance, one should always act on the side of caution. I am glad that these people over ruled the decision of their physician and received rabies shots. In addition, they should take their dog to the vet, and have it receive rabies shots. 

While it may be true that rabies has never shown up in raccoons in Oregon, that does not mean that it could not happen. A quick search of the internet shows me that it has it has happened in other places. Once the symptoms of rabies shows up in an animal, it is almost universally fatal, so it is nothing to mess around with. A raccoon is an opportunistic carnivore, and could easily eat a dead or dying animal that has this disease. 

An article on the internet said that the disease "distemper" in raccoons mimics the symptoms of rabies, but is not a hazard to people. Since the animal could not be caught for testing, I would take no chances with this, however.

I believe the proper treatment of a suspect rabies bite should immediately be treated as follows:

1. Thoroughly wash and disinfect the wound.

2. Administer rabies antiserum.

3. Give a tetanus shot. 

4. After about 24 hours (this gives a chance for the antiserum to neutralize any virus in the system before it enters the nerve cells and hides there, making it inaccessible), as a minimum treatment start a prophylactic series or rabies shots. It should be at the discretion of the physician and the patient as to whether the entire series of rabies shots are given.

Always be aware of abnormal behavior in an animal, and avoid abnormally friendly or aggressive wild animals or pets. This behavior is part of the strategy of the rabies virus to transmit itself. The disease also used to be called hydrophobia, because part of it's symptoms are that the muscles involved in swallowing become paralyzed. This causes a fear of liquid in the animal since it starts to choke if it tries to drink. In addition, it cannot swallow its own salvia, and then starts to "foam" at the mouth. 

At the time that I had this job, Tennessee had the highest incidence of rabies in the nation, and the main animal vector in contact with people was the fox. Minnesota had the second highest incidence, and there it was the skunk. In both states, the counties having the highest incidence of rabies also had the highest incidence of caves. The reason for this is that bats live in these caves, and these animals would contract rabies when they would eat dead or dying animals from the floor of the caves. In addition, I believe that it is possible to become infected from the guano on the floor of the cave. 

In most mammals, once the symptoms of rabies start, the animal will die within about 10 days, because the virus migrates within the nerve cells up to the brain. In the bat however, the virus tends to migrate to the saliva glands first, and a rabid bat can survive for much longer (maybe even six months). It appears that the virus comes from the vampire bat in central or South America. This bat is tropical, and does not get up to the U.S., however the brown bat, which migrates up into this country also lives down there. The brown bat then brings the virus up here, where it infects other animals. For this reason spelunkers or cave explorers should also consider getting the prophylactic series of shots.

It is interesting to read about some of the behavioral changes in rabid animals. I remember reading one incidence in which a man driving through wooded country had a flat tire. As he was changing the tire, a fox came out of the woods and started chewing the tires. In another incidence, a farmer's wife was hanging clothes on a wash line when a skunk came out of the trees and started following her around. Her husband shot the skunk. In both instances these animals tested positive for rabies. A group of raccoons coming out of the woods in the daytime and attacking people is definitely unusual behavior.

It is also possible for a cow to get rabies, but in this incidence the symptoms are different. Usually it is first observed that the hind legs of the animal become paralyzed, then it starts to have difficulty swallowing. The farmer, then noticing this, assumes that the cow has something stuck in its throat, and reaches down the throat to remove the obstruction. He then becomes infected.

I hope that this helps to clear up some of the mysteries of this disease.