Seven treated for rabies in town

(Illustration - austincc.edu)

(Illustration – austincc.edu)

The discovery of two wild animals with rabies in Fairfield has led to five residents beginning treatment for the deadly virus in the past week, according to town Animal Control Officer Paul Miller.

Springer Road bat

In the first case, a Springer Road couple discovered a dead bat in a children’s playroom in their house. The town’s  Animal Control Division sent the bat to the state lab in Rocky Hill for testing, and was informed of the positive result on Weds., Dec. 3.

The man and woman who live in the house, along with their three grandchildren, are all receiving treatment, Miller said. The grandchildren had spent the night at the couple’s house the day before the bat was found.

“The thing with a bat is that you don’t know how long it’s been there or where it’s been,” Miller said, explaining that because a person could be bitten by a bat without realizing it while sleeping, most health officials recommend post-exposure treatment.  There is no treatment for the fatal virus once it has reached the brain of an infected victim.

Treeing walker coonhound

The second case involved a pet dog fighting with a rabid raccoon in its owners’ back yard on Woodside Circle. The dog, a treeing walker coonhound, had the raccoon in its mouth during the fight, Miller said, noting that the dog was only “doing what it was bred to do.”

The dogs’ owners called police, who shot the raccoon, which was also sent to the Rocky Hill lab for testing. Both owners handled the dog after it fought with the raccoon.

The Woodside Circle owners of the coonhound consulted with their physician and initially decided not to undergo rabies treatment, but changed their minds after talking with medical personnel at St. Vincent’s Medical Center.

“With second-hand contact,” such as in the case of the coonhound’s owners, Miller said, there is “much less risk” than in direct contact cases like that of the bat in the Springer Road residence.

The coonhound was up-to-date on its rabies vaccinations, but was given a booster shot and is under period of 45-day strict confinement at home, Miller said, during which the owners will watch the dog for signs of “vaccine failure.”

Miller said that while he hasn’t heard of any cases of vaccine failure in Connecticut, one or two such cases have been reported in other states, possibly due to a bad vaccine batch or improper administration of the vaccine.

Treatment

Miller explained that an infected animal becomes contagious once the rabies virus reaches the brain. The virus is transmitted through the infected animal’s saliva, but breaks down as soon as it is exposed to air.

Rabies vaccinations were once the stuff of nightmares, involving a lengthy series of painful shots to the abdomen. Now, post-exposure treatment consists of five shots of the vaccine, given on the first, third, seventh and fourteenth days of treatment, said Miller.  Additional injections of human immune globulin are given on the first day of treatment to boost the victim’s  ability to fight off the virus.

The state Department of Health also advises a thorough scrubbing of the bite wound with soap and warm water to help fend off infection.

The rabies vaccine is usually injected in different areas around the body, Miller said, unless the victim has a clear “bite path,” in which case the injections will be administered at the location of the bite. Miller said that generally, the closer the bite is to the brain, the shorter the incubation period, which according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, usually lasts a range of three to eight weeks, although cases have developed in as little as two weeks and as long as one year.

The public health department’s website states that untreated rabies infection is always fatal, and that by the times symptoms appear, it is too late for treatment.

Modern strain

Miller said that while there may have been cases of rabies in the state in the 1920s, the modern strain arrived in 1991, when a variant of the virus known as the “Mid-Atlantic strain” spread north from infected raccoons that had been brought from Florida to a raccoon hunting facility in West Virginia. Some of the infected raccoons escaped and infected the local raccoon population, Miller said, and after that it was just a waiting game in Connecticut as the virus spread north and west.

“That is the reason we are called animal control officers and not dog wardens,” Miller said. Before the Mid-Atlantic strain spread, people in Miller’s position dealt almost exclusively with dogs. But when the virus hit Connecticut in 1991, he said, it ran through the raccoon population, and, according to the Department of Public Health, infected other wild animals as well, notably skunks and bats, although any warm-blooded creature can contract the disease.

In Fairfield, there are usually one or two cases of rabid animals detected by Animal Control annually, although sometimes that number is three to six, and sometimes even goes up to nine. But the incidence of two cases in one week is not cause for alarm, he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s out of control.”

 

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