Biologists Working to Stop the Catastrophic Spread of a Rare Strain of Rabies to Iowa & the Midwest
According to a recent report from the Washington Post, the death of a kitten has set off a "nine-alarm fire" in the scientific world that could see a deadly virus spread unchecked, affecting an estimated 7 million residents across South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, and yes, our great state of Iowa.
In the past year, I've actually written about the increase in rabies cases in certain bats in Illinois that caused a public health statement to be released in which they stated, "a total of 27 rabid bats had been found in the state." Now, there has been a total of 83 confirmed cases of rabies, all from bats across the state of Illinois.
So, long story short, a kitten named Stanley has become the epicenter of a rabies mystery, that has set off a high-stakes emergency response in Omaha, Nebraska. His owners initially believed the kitten was suffering from a reaction to medication. However, tests revealed the kitten not only had rabies, but a strain never before seen west of the Appalachian Mountains.
This discovery has triggered a rapid emergency response, with wildlife biologists converging on Omaha from as far as Vermont and New Hampshire. Their mission is to vaccinate the area raccoon populations (carriers of this rabies strain) and prevent what they call "a catastrophic spread." The absence of natural barriers in the Midwest region has raised concerns about the virus radiating quickly to neighboring states, putting those 7 million residents across the states at risk.
Human exposure to rabies necessitates a meticulous tracking down of individuals who had contact with the infected animal, in this case Stanley. That leads to a costly, but crucial, administration of rabies vaccinations and immune globulin treatment. By the way, those treatments can cost up to $8,000 per person.
How can I identify a rabies-infected animal?
The first sign of rabies is usually a change in the animal's behavior. An animal doesn't need not be "foaming at the mouth" to have rabies. Other more typical signs include:
- Difficulty walking
- Different-size pupils
- A general appearance of sickness or a change in the animal's normal behavior. For example, if an animal that is normally wild and avoids contact with humans approaches a picnic area, campsite or home and appears tame or friendly, consider it rabid.
- If a normally tame and friendly animal becomes hostile or aggressive without provocation, it too should be considered rabid.
- A rabid animal usually dies within one week after showing signs of the disease.
How can I protect my animals & pets from rabies?
- Keep your dogs and cats up to date on rabies vaccination per state law and to protect them against exposure.
- Horses, sheep, cattle, and ferrets can also be vaccinated for rabies.
- Call your veterinarian if your animal has been exposed to a high-risk animal, most commonly raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes.
How Do I Keep Rabies From Spreading?
- Do not touch, feed, or unintentionally attract wild animals with open garbage cans or litter.
- Never adopt wild animals or bring them into your home. Do not try to nurse sick wild animals to health. Call animal control or an animal rescue agency for assistance.
- Teach children never to handle unfamiliar animals, wild or domestic, even if they appear friendly. “Love your own, leave other animals alone” is a good principle for children to learn to reduce the risk of exposure to rabid animals.
- Maintain homes and other buildings so bats cannot get inside.
- If a bat is in your home, do not release the bat outdoors until after speaking with animal control or public health officials.
- After consulting with animal control or public health officials, the bat may need to be captured for rabies testing to determine if you need preventive treatment or if your pet may have been exposed.
After kitten Stanely's death, the USDA trapped and vaccinated 753 raccoons, 41 skunks, four feral cats, and one red fox — in an area about 61 miles around where the kitten was found. Additionally, the USDA, state, and local officials placed 18,000 oral vaccine packets within a five-mile radius of the incident. These were coated with fishmeal to attract raccoons specifically. Did you know: that the USDA air drops around 10 million doses of oral rabies vaccine in a band of 16 states stretching from Maine to Ohio and south to Alabama and Texas?
This ongoing rabies saga underscores the urgency and importance of managing infectious diseases. It's important to understand that human and animal health are often intertwined. In these cases, the critical need is for a swift, coordinated response to lessen the potential fallout if this strain of rabies was left to spread unchecked.
WATCH OUT: These are the deadliest animals in the world
LOOK: Stunning animal photos from around the world
Gallery Credit: Nicole Caldwell