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Rabies cases still rare, stats show
Two animals have tested positive so far this year

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The number of confirmed rabies cases in the area has not varied much in recent years, Virginia Department of Health (VDH) statistics show.

Rabies is “a nearly 100 percent fatal” illness caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system, said Tim Baker, environmental health manager for the West Piedmont Health District, which operates area health departments.

People can get rabies if they are bitten by an animal with the virus.

Statistics obtained from the VDH website show that so far this year, two animals (a fox and a skunk) in Henry County-Martinsville and one animal (a raccoon) in Patrick County have tested positive for rabies.

Last year, positive tests occurred in five animals (two foxes, two raccoons and a skunk) in Henry County-Martinsville, but none in Patrick County.

Three animals (two raccoons and a fox) in Henry County-Martinsville and seven animals (five raccoons, one horse and one skunk) tested positive in Patrick County in 2012.

In 2011, six animals (three raccoons, two foxes and a cat) in Henry County-Martinsville and five animals in Patrick County (two skunks, a raccoon, a fox and a cat) tested positive.

Seven animals (three foxes, two skunks, a raccoon and a bat) in Henry County-Martinsville, and six animals (three racoons, two skunks and a dog) in Patrick County tested positive in 2010.

A total of 289 animals statewide were confirmed to have had rabies so far this year, compared to 291 by this time last year, the VDH reported.

“The numbers are pretty much in line” with what other localities statewide are reporting, Baker said, although some places with larger populations may report somewhat higher numbers.

In 2013, 488 animals statewide were deemed rabid, down from 562 in 2012 and 618 in 2011. A total of 573 tested positive in 2010, figures indicate.

“For one or two years,” Baker said, rabies figures “will be a little lower than we (health officials) expect, then we’ll see a spike for a couple of years.”

Spikes can occur in the overall number of rabies cases as well as among specific animal species, he said.

Why fluctuations occur is hard to pinpoint.

“It could be pure happenstance,” Baker said, when people encounter rabid animals by “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Rabies in wild animals probably is more prevalent than the statistics indicate, Baker said. He noted that health departments often get calls from people who see wild animals acting strangely in their yards and they suspect the animals are rabid.

But the only way to find out if an animal is rabid is to test it for the virus, and that requires it to be caught and euthanized. Most people do not try to catch a strange-acting animal unless it bites someone, Baker indicated.

The Martinsville Police Department’s website recommends contacting police to try and catch potentially rabid animals.

Rabies usually is transmitted through an animal’s saliva. In addition to being bitten by infected wild animals, people can get rabies if they are bitten by pets that became infected after being bitten by wild animals.

Vaccinations against rabies are available for dogs and cats. Henry County requires dogs to be vaccinated by the time they are four months of age. In Martinsville, both cats and dogs must be vaccinated.

It could not be determined Thursday whether Patrick County requires vaccinations for pets.

However, vaccinating pets is “the most effective way of preventing the spread” of rabies, Baker said.

A series of vaccinations, known as post-exposure prophylaxis, is available to people thought to have been bitten by a rabid animal to counteract the virus’ effects. A person must start receiving the vaccine soon after the bite.

Prophylaxis is expensive — costs mentioned on various websites ranged up to more than $16,000.

Area health departments do not have rabies vaccine, so Baker was unable to cite an average cost. Because the vaccine must be given at regular intervals up to 30 days after exposure to a possibly rabid animal, a hospital or other medical facility open daily usually must administer it, he said.

Once someone shows symptoms of rabies, there usually is no hope that the person will recover, according to information on medical websites.

Baker said nobody in the area has died of rabies in the past 30 years, to his knowledge.


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