Of­fi­cials con­firm ra­bies case in Polk County

The Standard Journal - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Myrick SJ Edi­tor

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.

Graphic by Kevin Myrick / SJ

In 2016, ra­bies cases reached a five-year high in Polk County.

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