Rabies remains a threat in Arizona

HonorHealth - Rabies in Arizona

In July 2017 a passerby/animal lover saw a bobcat attacking a German shepherd in Anthem, AZ. As he tried to pull the bobcat off the dog, the cat turned on him, biting his thumb and scratching him before he could fling it away. Lab tests confirmed that the bobcat had rabies, and that meant a series of rabies shots for the man and the dog.

Rabies is a preventable viral disease that attacks the central nervous system, causing encephalitis – infection and inflammation of the brain. Rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear, and it's not a pretty death. The disease is most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal, but you can also get it by handling it and touching your eyes, nose or mouth, or by getting its saliva in an open wound. Yuck.

In Arizona, the main hosts for rabies are bats, skunks and foxes, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Two rabid animals recently were found in the Superstition Mountains Wilderness Area in the east Valley, a popular hiking destination. Every year, approximately 30 people are exposed to rabid animals in Arizona. In late December 2017, 26 individuals had been exposed. If you live in the outskirts of the Valley or in a rural area of Arizona, you're more likely to encounter a rabid animal than a city dweller.

Rabid animals typically act strangely — they may show no fear of people or pets. Nocturnal animals with rabies might be active in daylight. Skunks, foxes and coyotes (and, yes, bobcats) can become aggressive and may try to bite.

The only mammals that can fly, bats are the most common source of rabies exposure because they fall to the ground where other animals, kids and adults are tempted to handle them.

The best advice to avoid rabies? Leave bats and other wild animals alone. Without touching a bat on the ground, put a box over it and call animal control. And get your pets vaccinated.

Medical treatment for rabies

"If you've been bitten by a rabid animal, wash the wound with soap and water immediately," said Matthew Anderson, MD, a family medicine physician in the HonorHealth Medical Group. "Call your primary care physician and report the bite to animal control." Try to capture the animal without damaging its head or risking a bite. If you can't capture the animal, your local health department and physician will advise you on the need to start rabies treatment.

If you're advised to get rabies shots, here's what to expect, Dr. Anderson said:

  • Medical science has advanced, so don't worry about what you might have heard about a series of shots in the abdomen with a long needle.
  • Now you'll receive a fast-acting shot first — rabies immune globulin — to keep the virus from infecting you. Part of the serum in that first shot will be injected near the site where the animal bit you, as soon as possible after the bite.
  • Next comes a series of rabies shots in your arm. You'll receive four injections over 14 days.

Keep in mind: If a wild animal bites you, the animal should be presumed rabid until laboratory testing is complete.

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