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Vaccine Saves People Exposed To Rabies
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Rabies is not only a deadly concern for dogs and cats, it can have serious consequences when an animal suspected of having rabies bites a person.
In 1995, Robert Allen of Ocean Springs was bit by raccoon thought to have the rabies virus. The bite, actually just a scratch by the animal's teeth, sent him to the emergency room for a series of five vaccinations to save his life. His ordeal ended with him being free of the potentially deadly virus.
Bruce Brackin, deputy state epidemiologist with the Mississippi Board of Health in Jackson, said rabies is basically 100 percent fatal if not treated. It is also 100 percent preventable with the vaccinations.
"The average time without the vaccine from rabies exposure to death is one to three months," Brackin said. "Once symptoms develop, it's too late to do anything other than offer supportive care to the victim."
Rabies is transmitted in the saliva of infected wild or domestic animals and can enter the body when the skin is broken. The vaccine regimen starts with a dose of human rabies immune globulin, and is followed by five doses of the vaccine. The vaccine is given in five shots during a four-week period.
Treatment starts as soon as the exposure is suspected. Typically, the decision to vaccinate is made between the victim and a physician. The reason for the bite (provoked or unprovoked) and the occurance of animal rabies in the vicinity are taken into account when making the decision for treatment.
"With the post-exposure treatment, you stop the spread of the virus, and if it can't spread, it dies," Brackin said.
The epidemiologist said the rabies vaccine is very safe to humans, and very effective.
Allen was exposed to rabies from a racoon that wandered into his yard and seemed perfectly normal and very friendly. When feeding it a cookie one day, the raccoon's teeth scratched Allen, drawing blood.
"Because he wasn't vicious and the scratch wasn't uninitiated, I didn't think anything of it," Allen said. "The raccoon stayed around the house, and several days later I noticed it was acting strange so we penned it up."
When the raccoon's condition got worse, Allen called the animal shelter, which picked up the animal and sent it to be tested. Testing came back positive for rabies, and the Mississippi Department of Health went to Allen at work and sent him immediately to the hospital for shots.
The only problem was that almost a month passed from exposure until treatments were started.
"They weren't hopeful that the shots would do any good," Allen said. "They went ahead and gave them to me because that was my only chance. I really feel like I looked death in the face that time because it was real for us."
After the shot series was complete, Brackin said further testing of the racoon at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta showed the raccoon did not have rabies.
"Other than the cost of the shots, there's no good reason to not administer the vaccine if there's a chance of exposure," Brackin said.
Dr. John Harkness, laboratory animal veterinarian at Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, said rabies is relatively rare in Mississippi, but is still a terrifying disease and a serious public health concern.
"Regular pet vaccinations and tighter animal control laws are limiting the spread of rabies, but the danger of exposure still exists," Harkness said.
Among the precautions to avoid exposure to rabies is to avoid animals that are acting unusual, teach children to avoid wild animals and strange dogs and cats, obey animal control ordinances and avoid touching dead animals.
"If a possible exposure does occur, contact your physician or the local health department immediately," Harkness said.
Contact: Dr. John Harkness, (601) 325-1131