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What’s biting you? Protect yourself against rabies this summer

Rabies illness very rare, but bats are the only known risk in our state

SNOHOMISH COUNTY --- Although rabies illness in humans is very rare in Washington State, Snohomish Health District fields dozens of calls about it each month of the summer when people are more likely to be bitten by animals. Virtually always fatal once symptoms develop, rabies infection is transmitted by animal bite. In the last 64 years, only two people in the state died from rabies. Since 1990 the number of reported human cases nationwide has ranged from one to six cases annually.

“Bats are the only wild animals in Washington that are known to carry rabies,” said M. Ward Hinds, MD, MPH, head of Snohomish Health District. Of 212 animals that tested positive for rabies from 1990-2001 in Washington, 210 were bats. The others were domestic animals probably infected by bat bites.

“This doesn’t mean you should go gunning for bats,” said Dr. Hinds. “Bats are important in our ecosystem and they do an important job consuming insects, including the mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus. Rather, it means having your pet dogs, cats and ferrets fully vaccinated against rabies, avoiding contact with bats -- especially dead or injured ones, and batproofing your home,” he said.

Bats give birth in the summer, and the offspring do not fly until they are almost full-grown -- usually by August in Washington. To avoid trapping bats inside a building, do not attempt batproofing from May through August. For advice and details about batproofing, see http://healthlinks.washington.edu/nwcphp/rabies/batproofing.html.

In other parts of the country, rabies has been detected in raccoons, skunks, coyotes and foxes. These wild animals have not been shown to carry rabies in Washington State, despite rabies testing of hundreds of them that have bitten humans. Dogs are the most common carrier of rabies outside the United States. Whenever a human is bitten by a wild animal, health officials recommend capturing the animal for rabies testing of its brain tissue to determine the need for preventive treatment for the victim. Quarantine and observation measures for dogs, cats and ferrets can suffice and public health officials should be contacted about how to do this.

More information about rabies is available from www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/rabies/Ques&Ans/q&a.htm; and www.doh.wa.gov/Topics/rabiesfct.html.

Established in 1959, the Snohomish Health District works for a safer and healthier community through disease prevention, health promotion, and protection from environmental threats. Find more information about the Health District at www.snohd.org.

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