By Richard P. Holm, MD
In 1966, a ten-year-old boy from Hamlin County, South Dakota was sleeping out with his buddies when a skunk crawled into his sleeping bag and bit the boy aggressively near the face. Despite providing the child with old-style vaccinations, the boy succumbed to rabies within a month. Even with present day technology, once rabies gets to the nerves it is at least 96% fatal in humans. rabies is believed to kill more than 55,000 people every year in Africa and Asia alone—most of them after a bite from a rabid dog. By comparison, in the U.S., rabies kills only about two or three people per year.
Over the last 50 years, effective vaccination programs for domestic dogs and cats, along with improved rabies post-exposure prevention (PEP) treatment, has significantly reduced the number of rabies-related deaths in the United States. Domestic animal vaccination has been quite successful in containing rabies exposure to humans, but minimally affects the risk of rabies in wild animals and thus they remain a reservoir for the disease. This and the newer PEP, which is easier to take and more effective, has also helped radically reduce human rabies.
We still have plenty of animal rabies, however. In SD, over the last ten years, we tested 6,500 animals suspected of rabies, since they were seen in unnatural hours acting sluggish or aggressive. They found five percent tested positive. Specifically, 195 skunks, 48 bats, 47 cows, 22 cats, 16 dogs, eight horses, three goats, and two raccoons were rabid. Please take note that none of the 16 infected dogs had been vaccinated, giving credibility to the value of vaccination. Of all the bats tested, only three percent were positive, while 48% of the skunks tested were rabid. These were selected due to bizarre behavior and thus the percentage affected is artificially high. Still, this gives another reason, besides bad odor, to avoid skunks.
Just last week a Sioux Falls man was walking his dog late in the evening near many evergreens, when he noted something was crawling on his forearm. When home in the light, he noted tiny double bite marks, highly suspicious for bat bites. Since SD bats are usually bug eaters, not arm chewers, this incident was worrisome. The doctor recommended rabies PEP.
Bottom line: Vaccinate your pets, avoid messing with wild animal, and seek immediate medical care whenever bitten by any animal.