Officials confirm rabies case in Polk County
Local residents need to take precautions and remember that rabies remains an active problem in Polk County following the first confirmed case for the year announced late last week. Officials from Northwest Georgia Public Health announced on March 30 that a raccoon found in the Cedartown area was found to test positive for rabies during the past month.
Polk County Health Department Environmental Health Director Kathy Couey-Miller said in follow-up queries about the case that lab results confirmed the rabies case earlier last week.
It marked the first reported case of rabies in the county for the year.
In 2017, county health officials reported three different raccoons found with rabies, and in 2016 found eight raccoons and a bat.
“Rabies is regularly found in Polk County and is always circulating in our wild animal population,” Couey-Miller said. “Getting your pet vaccinated against rabies is the single best way to protect your pet from rabies. It’s important to do it for their protection, for our protection, and because it’s state law.”
Miller additionally said that local residents need to heed additional advice now that can prevent potential spread of rabies from the wildlife population and into pets and humans as spring and the likelihood of encountering animal carriers grows.
She also cautions residents to avoid wild, stray, and possibly unvaccinated animals that may be infected with rabies to protect themselves and their families.
“Reducing the risk of rabies in domestic animals and limiting human contact with wild animals are two measures central to the prevention of human rabies,” Couey-Miller explained in the release last week.
Additional precautions people can take in the fight against rabies include keeping pet food indoors and feeding pets indoors as well, not leaving pets unattended outdoors or with small children where they might encounter wild or stray animals, report all ani- mals suspected of being a rabies carrier, specifically any bats or raccoons found.
Signs of rabies issues include wildlife that is being aggressive, foaming at the mouth or acting strange in uncharacteristic ways, like swaying back and forth when they walk.
Check out this week’s edition for more on rabies and the health department’s fight against the disease in the latest installment on the work done by the Polk County Health Department.
There are parts of Polk County’s natural landscape that are fantastic, such as the vistas seen from the hills of local farms, to the still-wooded acres of timber and hunting spreads used throughout the year by humans and animals alike.
As civilization continues to divvy up what was once the homes for wildlife into plots being populated by families in new subdivisions, or farmers who are expanding their fields, unexpected consequences come when humanity’s constant push to fill up all the spaces meets the creatures who called the land home before.
One of those unexpected consequences is rabies. Late last week, officials announced their latest encounter with a viral disease commonly called rabies, this time in the form of a rabid raccoon found in the Wilson Road area south of Cedartown. It was the first case reported for the year, and the 13th case found in Polk County since the start of 2016. The last time Polk County went without a reported rabies case was 2013.
There was one case in 2015, and three in 2014.
It might not seem like a lot, but with the numbers of positive tests completed by lab technicians for the Polk County Health Department’s Environmental Protection Division, there are likely many more out there.
Curtailing the spread of rabies is a campaign that Kathy Couey-Miller, the Environmental Health Director for the county, has been involved with for a number of years in Northwest Georgia and locally in Polk County. Testing for and reporting on rabies cases locally is also one of the many tasks her department undertakes locally.
The same problems that existed when she started her work in eradicating rabies remain today.
“We’re the designated rabies control officers,” Couey- Miller said. “We have delegated to, if that county has animal control, and I helped write the animal control ordinance to get my rabies control program to work well.”
It takes a lot of partnerships between law enforcement, animal control, doctors and veterinarians offices locally to ensure too that proper reporting is being done, since one surefire way of keeping rabies from becoming an out-of-control epidemic is keeping close track of cases.
“We all work as a good team, and we have a great system here,” she said.
Even with the best efforts of officials, progress in curtailing the spread of rabies won’t get anywhere without f i r s t people having a clear understanding of the virus, and what they can do to ensure they and their families stay well clear from what it can do.
What is rabies?
Rabies isn’t an easy virus to fight. A form of lyssavirus, it begins by inserting itself into a host’s cells, which then allow it to use the cells to create copes of the virus and spread. The rabies virus uses the nervous system to replicate through the body, and eventually get’s into a host’s brain causing inflammation and in turn a variety of nasty symptoms.
It starts with a feeling similar to the flu, a general discomfort in the body and fever or headache. They’ll last for days, then transform into something much worse when the infection spreads from the source, generally an animal bite.
Doctors call it cerebral dysfunction, but people will generally just say an animal or human with the virus have gone “rabid.”
Anxiety, confusion and agitation are common. When it progresses onward, people can experience delirium, abnormal and aggressive behavior, hallucinations and insomnia.
Fear of water, violent movements, and inability to move parts also show signs of the progress of the disease.
Universally, rabies is fatal if a human vaccination for the virus isn’t provided to patients before the start of any symptoms. Untreated animal bites from suspected carriers are a likely death sentence.
This is one area where it can’t be stated more clearly: it is a good idea to immediately seek medical treatment for animal bites, whether the animal is suspected to be sick or not for any reason. If not for the potential to catch any diseases that can be carried by animals and sicken humans, then for peace of mind that nothing resulted from the encounter.
Not doing so is a big enough problem that people still die from rabies in large numbers. For instance in 2015, rabies caused 17,400 deaths worldwide. Most of those in Africa and Asia, but the virus has caused suffering on every continent but Antarctica.
Locally the problem hasn’t been quite as bad but is still a large cause of concern for health officials.
Just last year alone, the health department reported 153 cases of animal bites that were investigated.
They also shipped out 21 specimens for lab testing, and out of all of those sent off to the lab, only had three positive cases of rabies found locally. All of those were from raccoons, but in the past the number has included bats as well.
In all, 10 people received treatment last year for potential rabies encounters. Those will only grow if people continue actions that only entice animal carriers into human populations. And those treatments, insurance or not, can cost thousands of dollars to those patients potentially exposed.
Generally speaking, rabies can attack any animal, but in wildlife it shows an affinity for animals like raccoons. Though not uncommon for Polk County residents to come across wildlife like a squirrel or raccoon while out walking locally on something like the Silver Comet Trail, or while in the garden in their backyard, those animals are usually fearful and will run from humans.
It is when wildlife loses this fear because of rabies and then have the opportunity to bite domesticated pets or their owners, as a for instance of a problem Couey-Miller has encountered before, that rabies can then make its way from an epidemic affecting natural populations to one moving into the civilized world.
So what happens when someone is bitten by an animal?
If they seek medical treatment, that bite is reported and usually two agencies get involved: animal control and the health department.
That comes into the Couey- Miller’s department, who is in charge of deciding if when someone is bitten if there is a potential for a possible rabies case, or it is a commonplace bite?
It is one of the jobs of her department, figuring out whether an animal bite — like one of the 153 above — merits the need to treat for rabies.
“In my role, I work with a lot of animal rescue situations as well,” she said. “So for example, I work with a lot of kittens. They bite and scratch you, that’s normal and that is what kittens do. It wouldn’t be abnormal for that to happen while a kitten is playing with me.”
“Another e x a mple would be if you have a family pet and he’s trying to eat and he’s pulling his tail and he turns around and bites the child, that’s normal behavior,” she said. “You kind of have to be an animal person to assess these situations.”
She calls these kinds of behaviors normal and part of the routine of her department’s reporting on dog bite cases. When it gets to be a problem is when a person, or their pets, encounter wildlife.
Couey- Miller cited a good example as one where, say, a stray cat suddenly attacks a person while they are out enjoying a day’s walk. That’s when the risk of rabies is a real problem and one requiring those expensive treatments mentioned above.
“Years ago in Rockmart, a dog was roaming downtown Rockmart attacking people and then ran through a plate glass window to get to a man and bit him,” she said. “That’s not normal... I had a really bad rabies case t hree years ago where a guy hears a fox out on his porch killing his cat. Well he comes out on the porch, and the fox dropped the cat and launched at him. Just shredded him.”
The next day, the same man found a dead fox in his garden, and it was unknown if it was the same animal who had attacked the night previous. Couey- Miller said that fox turned out rabid.
Then t he f ollowing day, she said another rabid fox turned up on the property dead as well.
Risk assessment also unfortunately requires another side of the job that isn’t fun for any involved: determining what to do with wildlife found, dead or alive, that have been potentially exposed to rabies. If alive, they’re euthanized, and the bodies of those animals are then shipped off for testing at the state’s lab in Decatur.
Domestic animal exposure is caused in a lot of ways, but a common one is leaving food out for dogs or cats and they’ve come into contact with an animal, rabid or not, seeking a free meal.
The situation with the fox above is more common in Polk County than Couey-Miller would like to see, and much of the time because of food or trash left out for wildlife to get into.
“I’ll be out riding a horse and I’ll see a fox, and he ran the other way, that is what you’d expect,” she said. “So we do risk assessment. We ask the question ‘ what caused you to be bitten?’”
When it comes down to figuring that process out, she said “it gets confusing” due to a variety of issues, but that a majority of bites are “preventable.”
“About 80 percent are small children who have been bitten by ‘ intact’ dogs,” Couey-Miller said.
So what it ultimately comes down to is not just tackling wildlife issues locally, but also changing human actions as well.
Last year, a group of local officials and veterinarians began working on the problem of how to curtail humans and pets encountering rabies, and continue that work today.
They’re hoping that live baiting program that contains vaccines for wildlife to take up as they wander around for food can help in the future, but Polk County’s participation in the program is scheduled via work being done on the federal level, and thus isn’t likely to happen for a few years to come.
What can be done now to cut down on rabies spread to domestic animal and human popul ations t hrough Polk County is where the everyday people of Polk County are needed most at the moment.
The most important item of all on that list the protections a person can take, especially pet owners, is to get dogs, cats and even livestock vaccinated against the rabies virus.
Anyone who hasn’t done so already is violating state law, and a number of options are available for those who need help to cover the cost of the medications provided to pets.
On May 4, the Cedartown- Polk County Humane Society will be providing a low-cost rabies vaccination clinic in Cedartown at the Boys and Girls Club on East Queen Street.
In past years, hundreds of animals have taken part in getting vaccinated, which should be completed, and costs for shots are $10 per pet.
Another action local residents can take to cut down on wildlife encounters is feed their pets indoors instead of outdoors. Not leaving any food or water sources outdoors for wildlife to take advantage of, and thus cause the likelihood of dangerous encounters with animals to happen.
Here’s some additional tips from officials they are asking local residents to take in order to avoid coming into contact with rabies.
Remind children to avoid animals they don’t recognize, especially stray or wild animals. These animals may be infected with rabies.
Small children should not be left unattended with dogs, even if the dog is a pet or the child is familiar with it.
Keep pets at home. Obey any county laws requiring that dogs be restrained to the owner’s property. Pets that are kept close to home are less likely to encounter a rabid animal.
Report any raccoon, fox, bat or skunk that is out during the day in a residential area or that is behaving strangely to the local Georgia Department of Natural Resources Game and Fish Division office at 1-800241-4113.
Report stray dogs and cats and aggressive or sick-appearing animals to the local animal-control office.
Don’t attempt to assist injured or sick animals without professional help. Even animals which would never bite otherwise can bite when sick or in pain.
Bats found in sleeping quarters should be captured and tested for rabies even when there is no evidence of a bite wound or contact with the sleeping individuals.
After-hours calls involving aggressive animals should be directed to 911.
After-hours calls involving animal bites and their potential for rabies exposure should be directed to 866- PUB- HLTH ( 866782-4584).
Polk County residents can contact t he Polk County Health Department’s Environmental Health Office in Cedartown at 770-749-2253 for additional information or with any questions or concerns.
In 2016, rabies cases reached a five-year high in Polk County.