Memorial Day is the traditional start to the summer season in the United States. While having fun and being with friends and family are always at the top of the list of things to do during summer, being safe and staying healthy should also be on our minds. There are some things to be mindful of when heading outdoors to parks and forests. These things include preventing bites from ticks and mosquitoes, cooking and storing food properly, wearing proper sunscreen, swimming safely, and rabies.
Rabies is a viral disease of mammals. While there are plenty of cases of rabies in animals in the United States, human cases are extremely rare, with one or two cases reported each year. This is because there is a robust public health system that responds to cases of possible and confirmed rabies exposure in humans. There is also a functioning veterinary health system — and public policies — that require immunization of household pets like cats and dogs. In the rest of the world, most of the 55,000 deaths from human rabies each year happen as a result of dog bites.
On the other hand, it is much more difficult to immunize wild mammals. In the United States, raccoons account for most of the cases of rabies in wild animals, followed by skunks, bats, and foxes. For this reason, any exposure to the saliva of these animals in the wild — through a bite or close encounter — is cause for a visit to a healthcare provider in order to be evaluated for rabies prophylaxis (treatment to prevent infection or disease). Depending on the prevalence of rabies in the wild animals in your area, the type of exposure (e.g., a bite versus a lick), and any available laboratory testing, the healthcare provider may decide to go ahead with prophylaxis.
Rabies prophylaxis consists of an initial injection of immune globulin (antibodies against the rabies virus) followed by four doses of rabies vaccine over two weeks. Given on time, this treatment prevents the development of rabies if you are indeed exposed. Without this treatment, however, once signs and symptoms of rabies appear, the disease is practically 100% deadly — with only ten documented cases of survival after rabies sets in.
The rabies vaccine dates back to 1885 when Louis Pasteur used technology still in its very infancy to produce attenuated (weakened) rabies virus. This attenuated virus was injected into a child who had been bitten by a rabid dog. That first successful prophylaxis involved many injections of attenuated virus over several days, very different from today’s recommendation of five shots total.
So, as you head out this summer to enjoy the great outdoors, make sure to keep a safe distance from wildlife, especially animals that are acting strangely. This includes night time animals out in the day or animals that approach you without fear when they would normally run away from you. If a wild animal bites you, wash the wound with soap and water immediately and consult with a healthcare provider as soon as possible. If you encounter a bat in your sleeping quarters, even if you do not feel bitten, also consult with a healthcare provider as soon as possible. In addition, make sure your pets are immunized against rabies, especially if you live in a rural area or they have access to the outside, or if you bring them along on trips to parks and forests. If your pet does come in contact with a wild animal, take your pet to be evaluated by a veterinarian.
 “CDC – Rabies Surveillance Data in the United States – Rabies.” 2010. 18 May. 2012 <http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/location/usa/surveillance/index.html>