Summit County official on rabies: ‘It puts Ebola to shame’
The draw of seeing wildlife right out our backyards or office window is a reason many of us live in the mountains, but that proximity to wildlife can be fatal if not approached with caution.
While extremely rare, contracting rabies remains a very real possibility in the region, and Summit County health officials want locals and visitors to take the necessary precautions to avoid potential exposure. Bats in the community have tested positive for the viral disease as recently as 2012, and, if someone were bitten or scratched by one, it can mean almost certain death.
“It puts Ebola to shame,” said Dan Hendershott, Summit environmental health manager. “If you get rabies, you pretty much have a death sentence once you start getting symptoms.”
Rabies is most often found in wild animals, at a rate of more than nine out of every 10 cases, commonly in bats, skunks, raccoons and foxes — though can also originate with domestics, too. And, although there hasn’t been a recorded human case in the state since 1931, it causes upwards of 70,000 deaths annually worldwide, including a woman in central Wyoming just last year.
In her case, she was unknowingly bitten by a bat in August that had entered her home. More than a month later, she was hospitalized for an eight-day stay with a mysterious illness before dying in early October.
The incubation period for rabies varies by the instance, typically ranging from only days to a few months depending on the location of the bite. In the exceptional case, it can even last several years before symptoms mirroring the flu appear and by then it’s too late.
“It can be very slow traveling, which is scary,” said Shannon Downen, nurse with Summit’s Department of Public Health. “Hopefully, you wouldn’t get to this point. You don’t want to be foaming at the mouth.”
Rabies produces swelling of the brain after it moves through the nervous system, so the closer to the head one interacts with the saliva of the infecting animal, the quicker it can take effect. That’s why health experts insist that if there’s even an inkling of infection, you need to get to your physician as soon as possible.
“Rabies is 100-percent fatal, yet 100-percent preventable with immunization,” warned Sara Lopez, also a nurse with the local Department of Public Health. “Being wrong can’t really fit into the equation here.”
If there is suspicion you have come into contact with a rabid animal, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says to immediately cleanse the wound or area with soap and water for 15 minutes. Then begin to run down a checklist of questions: If known, what kind of animal was it, was it acting abnormally in any way and, finally, where did it go and is it possible to safely capture it for testing?
If, say, a bat can be detained without any additional risks, do so and contact either the local animal control or Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). In the case of the winged nocturnal mammal, officials suggest using gloves and a blanket to take it into custody, so it can be tested.
If the animal cannot be caught, or if it turns out the perpetrator was in fact rabid, medical personnel will start a person on the post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which includes in initial serum beneath the skin of the bite site as an immediate protection. Though not cheap, a series of four vaccines will also be necessary over the course of two weeks to ensure it beats the disease to the punch.
“It’s costly,” said Lopez, “but you don’t want to gamble. And every one of those (immunizations) is just as important as the last, so completing the series is absolutely vital.”
Preventing the possibility of rabies is the best way to avoid exposure. Dogs and cats — accounting for about 8 percent of confirmed rabies cases — should be vaccinated according to your vet’s guidelines but, as a rule of thumb, every year. Proof of an up-to-date rabies shot is already a requirement for an animal to be registered with the county for the necessary pet license.
Regarding wildlife, CPW emphasizes people avoid feeding, attracting or attempting to touch these wild species. If a bat or skunk is located in the home, try to locate how it may have entered and seal it up. Finally, if trying to use bats to constrain the area’s mosquito population, bat boxes should be placed no closer than 100 feet from your home.
“Obviously, the more we can keep ourselves from these animals in living quarters, the better off we’re going to be at not having those encounters,” said Hendershott. “We’re not opposed to wildlife — we like wildlife — but to have a bat box on your house is probably not a good idea.”
Anything to fend off this communicable disease with the highest case-to-fatality rate is what those in the public health world are pursuing, regardless of how few are impacted in the United States or the state each year.
“It’s not so much the prevalence,” added Hendershott, “it’s the extreme response that people have with the fatality rate of rabies. Pretty much everybody dies (who) gets it. So we have to stop rabies, that’s a no-brainer.”
This is the second in a three-part series of public health stories on zoonotic diseases, which can be transmitted from animal to human. Look for the final part in next Thursday’s edition.
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