Pima County investigates rabies cases, recommends ways to prevent exposure

Pima County investigates rabies cases, recommends ways to prevent exposure

The Pima County Health Department investigated four potential cases of rabies in animals in March, county officials reported Wednesday.

The cases which involved 2 bats, one cat and one javelina all tested negative, but the county warned residents of the risk of exposure and reiterated the steps to follow in case of an encounter with an animal thought to be infected.

Rabies is a disease mostly transmitted through bites from an infected animal and is more likely to occur between animals in the wild. There is a risk, however, of transmission to humans who come in contact with wildlife.

“It is not normal for a wild animal to be friendly with people,” the county said in a statement, “so stay away from any animal that seems unafraid.”

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve actually seen a decrease in confirmed animals with rabies,” said Jessica Rigler, the assistant director of Preparedness at the Arizona Department of Health Services. “In 2018, we had 160 animals who were positive for rabies in Arizona, that dropped to 139 in 2019, 107 in 2020 and down to 83 in 2021.”

So far in 2022, only one case of an animal testing positive to rabies has been confirmed. 

In 2021, 53 domestic animals were exposed to a rabid animalbut because the majority of pets are routinely vaccinated against the virus, Rigler said, transmission rates to and from pets remain low.

“Rabies often occurs in cycles,” Rigler said, “the curve will come back down after an outbreak, will quiet down for a few years before coming back. It’s possible we’re in the valley of one of those disease curves.” 

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Experts warn of the high mortality rate of humans who have contracted rabies and recommend immediately seeking medical help following an exposure. Once infected, the virus attacks the central nervous system, causing inflammation of the brain. If a person starts showing symptoms of rabies, the infection is always fatal.

In Arizona, an average of 30 people are exposed each year to an animal who has rabies, but according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the last reported human death from the disease in the state dates back to 1981.

In 2021, public health officials recommended a prophylactic vaccine for 11 exposures in humans and recorded no subsequent deaths. 

“We’ve seen a lot of decreases in infectious diseases reports in general over the period of COVID-19,” Rigler said. “It may be also that people are spending more time inside and not encountering wildlife as they typical would so there is not as many opportunities for exposure.”

“The pandemic has certainly influenced proactive vaccination programs, animal shelter operation, access to veterinary services,” said Dawn Gouge, a public health entomologist at the University of Arizona, as well as “the amount of funds citizens have for routine pet care.”

What to do when exposed to rabies? 

If bitten by an animal suspected of having rabies, the ADHS advises to immediately wash the bite wound with soap and water, contact a medical professional if the wound requires treatment and notify animal control health officials.

Capturing the animal without further risk of exposure and without damaging its head is also recommended. 

In Arizona, rabies is found mostly in bats and skunks. Because they are airborne and inhabit urban areas, bats are the most likely rabies exposure for humans. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, less than 1% of wild bats are likely to have rabies but they are more likely to find themselves in human habitats than other mammals. 

The Centers for Disease Control estimate about 60,000 people each year receive anti-rabies vaccines, with roughly two-thirds of exposures attributed to bats. 

The AZDHS recommends the following steps to limit risks of contracting rabies:

  • Teach children to stay away from wild animals and avoid handling unknown domestic pets.
  • Do not pick up or handle sick or injured wildlife.
  • Avoid leaving food out that may attract wildlife. 
  • Maintain up to date rabies vaccinations for all dogs and cats, making sure they stay away from wild animals. 
  • Do not disturb roosting bats habitats.
  • Do not handle sick or injured wild animals.
  • Report all animal bites, domestic or wild, to Animal Control in your county. 
  • Seek Appropriate medical treatment immediately upon exposure. Do not wait for symptoms of rabies to appear in pets or humans. 

Reach breaking news reporter Julie Luchetta at jluchetta@arizonarepublic.com.

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