Cyclical uptick to blame for Orange County rabies

Aug. 09, 2014 @ 04:11 PM

Orange County can’t catch a break this year when it comes to rabies cases. By Aug. 8, the county had reached 18 laboratory confirmed cases of rabies — six more than what its had in the past few years.

Bob Marotto, director of Orange County Animal Services, said there can be a multitude of factors when it comes to an uptick in rabies.

“It’s a very complicated subject, but I think that there is a cycling process that occurs in the reservoir population,” Marotto said.

Reservoir population refers to a certain species of wildlife that become the primary carriers for rabies. For Orange County, that can be seen as raccoons. Reservoir populations tend to be land dwelling creatures, but bats are known carriers of rabies as well, Marotto said.

“That cycling has ups and downs over long periods of time,” Marotto said. “And we seem to experiencing, the upside of the cycle.”

Marotto said this is the first uptick he’s seen since he’s come to Orange County in 2005. When he arrived the county had about 20 cases of rabies for a few years. Then it “leveled off” at about 12 to 13 cases a year.

Yet, it’s still hard to ascertain how many cases of rabies are actually in the county, for various reasons.

“Lab confirmed” rabies means a specimen that has been taken to the state lab and tested. Finding out exactly how many cases of rabies there are in the county is hard to obtain with certainty, Marotto said because people aren’t out testing the raccoon, fox and groundhog populations.

However, there seems to be no central area where all the cases of rabies are occurring.

“They really are dispersed,” Marotto said. “It is not the case that they are concentrated in any single area. They occur and are reported to us from every corner of the county.”

The county has done more than 100 exposure investigations, which means there was a possibility or suspicion of rabies. In such cases, like all rabies cases, those exposed are given the proper shots and boosters.

“I cannot believe there is a single subdivision of the county that has not had several investigations involving pets, people and livestock,” Marotto said.

As of Aug. 8, Orange County had the most confirmed rabies cases in the state, according to North Carolina State Department of Health records. Mecklenburg County followed behind with 16. Durham County only had one confirmed case in the state databank. Wake County is up to 12 cases. Chatham County has four reported cases.

Last year Durham County had 12 confirmed cases. Orange County had 13. Wake County rang in 15, whereas Chatham only had five. Mecklenburg had the most cases in 2013 — 20.

“My sense of what is going on is that it is cyclical uptick will not just last one year,” Marotto said. “But it could last a couple years. I’ll be surprised if it goes back down to 12 (cases).”

The most recent confirmed cases of rabies in the county involved foxes who were very aggressive. Pet owners had to fight off one fox with a shovel and knife before it was killed.

Marotto said aggression is often seen in one of the two types of rabies reactions — dumb and furious.

Furious rabies, Marotto said often involves an animal that can be easily agitated or excitable, like the fox in the most recent case. Dumb rabies is where an animal seems to be in a stupor, or trance-like state of being.

“I think that what we have witnessed with the recent fox cases, are that instance of that furious form of rabies,” Marotto said. “(It is) so excitable because of the neurological impact of the virus, it really lashes out at anything.”

Unfortunately, there is no cure for rabies, so there is no foreseeable way to prevent the spread of it beyond getting pets vaccinated (which is required by law), and avoiding exposure.

Marilyn Goss Haskell, a public health veterinarian with the state health department said all cats, dogs and ferrets are required by law to get vaccinated against rabies. Those vaccinations are the primary way to prevent rabies in household pets, she said.

Haskell also said to avoid interacting with any wildlife.

“Don’t attract them to your home,” she said. “Don’t feed any type of wild animal.”

It also helps to avoid feeding any pets outside.

“That’s when interactions tend to occur,” she said.

As the year continues Marotto said Orange County officials will look to “redouble” their efforts when it comes to rabies education and prevention.

“We really have to recognize that rabies is endemic in our area,” he said. “We work to ensure that we have educated county residents that understand animal health and human health.”

Marotto said all rabies in animals is eventually fatal, which is why it’s important for all possible cases to be reported to Animal Services.

Durham County officials could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.