Official: ‘Rabies is serious disease’

By Lisa Williams Ackley

Staff Writer

As the weather improves and people in the Lake Region begin to go outside more, they need to be aware of the dangers of rabies and the wild animals that carry it, state and local authorities say.

Rabies is a disease caused by a virus that affects the brain and spinal cord and can cause death if left untreated, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention's Division of Infectious Disease. Rabies is spread when a rabid animal bites or scratches a person or animal, or if a rabid animal's saliva or neural tissue comes in contact with a person or animal's mouth, nose or eyes, or enters a cut in the skin.

"I think the most important thing is that rabies is around all of the time — though more in the summer," said State Epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears. "Clearly, in your neck of the woods (southwestern Maine), there are a lot of potential exposures. We see rabies now pretty much all the time."

There were five reported cases of rabies in Cumberland County from Jan. 1 through March 27, 2012, with three of them in the Lake Region: a raccoon in Bridgton on Mar. 5, a raccoon in Raymond on Mar. 5 and a skunk in Harrison on Mar. 20, according to the Division of Public Health Systems Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory. The other two cases of rabies in Cumberland County were in Harpswell and Portland.

"Last summer, we had quite a few cases of rabies in fox and raccoons," said Jack Knight, of Bridgton, who is an Animal Damage Control agent certified by the State of Maine. "Any warm-blooded animal can contract rabies — the least likely to get it are possums, because their body temperature is a lot lower than other warm-blooded animals."

State Epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention said April 9 that the incidence of rabies in Maine during the months of January and February 2012 increased from 2011. He said rabies is most often found in skunks, foxes, raccoons and bats.

"Rabies is something everyone needs to be aware of — the risks and taking precautions — I'm hoping people will understand that rabies is a very serious disease," said Dr. Sears.

"Compared to last year, in January and February of this year we saw more animals positive for rabies, because we have had such a warm season — wild animals are out more and earlier — the numbers (for rabies) were higher for January of this year than last year," stated Dr. Sears.

"I think the most important thing is that rabies is around all of the time — though more in the summer," said Dr. Sears. "Clearly, in your neck of the woods (southwestern Maine), there are a lot of potential exposures. We see rabies now pretty much all the time."

"I had multiple calls last summer of fox coming up too close to people — near little kids, too," said Knight. "Animals basically lose their minds, when they get rabies — they get more aggressive. If you see an animal with porcupine quills in its nose, that's a sign the (rabies infected animals) are going after slower prey."

"Wild animals really need to be left alone," Dr. Sears cautioned.

"We only test animals (for rabies) when there has been an exposure or there is a need to know," said Dr. Sears. "If there is more exposure in a certain area, we will test more. Rabies is pretty much distributed throughout the state."

"Bats are the ones we have the most exposure to, because there are more bats," he stated.

Jack Knight agreed, saying, "Bats are a biggie — raccoons and skunks are the most common — in our area, we have a lot of fox and people have been feeding them."

History of rabies in Maine

"Going back almost two decades, there was no rabies (in Maine)," said Dr. Sears. "Rabies moved in to Maine in the 1990s and pretty much came north from raccoons that carried it here. Over the last decade, there's no question we've had rabies almost all the time. We issued health alerts about rabies earlier this year because it was just clear to us that, probably due to the warmer winter, more animals were out — that seemed to be the more likely reason why we saw more rabies in January of this year than last year. It's evened off more now — (the rabies numbers) for March look more like March of last year — but it's still a lot."

Precautions to take

"We need to remind people to vaccinate their animals," said Dr. Sears. "If it's wild, let it be. Don't leave food around outside. If you see an animal acting inappropriately — don't go near it at all — for example, if you see animals in the daytime that are normally only out at night — or wild animals acting aggressively."

Knight warns that people need to be aware of the fact that bird feeders attract more than just birds and can be a "breeding ground" for rabies, if not used appropriately.

"If people are feeding fox or other wild animals — bird feeders and wildlife feeders will attract fox and raccoons," said Knight. "They think they can pull in their feeders at night and they'll be fine. Plus the bears — we're getting more and more bear — the bear population is up — we are imposing on their natural habitat by stripping the woods — and people are getting hard up for money, so they are doing more logging."

"The best practice for using bird feeders is when the snow comes put them out, and when the snow leaves, bring your feeders in," said Knight. "Also, people should not leave dog or cat food outside — that is not good — it will draw in the skunks, raccoons and fox."

Less trapping of wild animals means there is apt to be more incidences of rabies, as well, said Knight.

"Trapping in southern Maine has decreased, over the last 10 to 20 years," Knight said. "Therefore, some species get overpopulated — like raccoons, fox and coyotes. Coyotes are getting much more aggressive. I can't express enough that people shouldn't be handling wildlife — they may seem friendly, but wildlife is wildlife and they're not supposed to react to humans."

"If anyone has questions about wild animals, tell them to feel free to call me at 647-3454," Knight stated.

The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention has a toll-free number 1-800-821-5281 where Dr. Sears and others are available to answer questions about rabies.

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