September 9, 2013

‘Ninety-nine percent fatal’

Raccoon bite prompts board of health to increase rabies oversight

By Christopher Smith

— A man who health officials say could have contracted rabies from a pet raccoon caused enough concern that members of the Whitfield County Board of Health have appointed two rabies control officers to help in situations involving potentially dangerous and infected animals.

The seven members of the board voted unanimously on Thursday to appoint Don Allen Garrett, director of Whitfield animal control, and David Hedden, an animal control employee, to oversee such situations.

Board member Bruce Broadrick said the main purpose of the officers is to “coordinate rabies clinics” and “keep everyone current with their pet vaccinations.”

“It’s serious stuff,” he said of the virus. “We don’t want children harmed or adults neither.”

Broadrick said the area has had similar rabies officers in the past, but those positions had become vacant over time.

Chad Mulkey, county environmental health manager, told board members the officers will deal with the “convoluted nature” of seeking information when there is a potential threat of rabies.

Oftentimes, Mulkey said, law enforcement or animal control officials hear about a situation that involves rabies, but local health officials don’t. The rabies control officers will be called into any investigations where rabies might be involved and keep health officials informed, he said.

State law also allows rabies control officers to have a say in ordinances that could help prevent animal bites, such as leash ordinances or pet ownership restrictions.

A Gilmer County man arrived at the Hamilton Medical Center emergency room in late July or early August with an “infected elbow” after being bitten by his pet raccoon, Mulkey said. The individual is OK, Mulkey added, after receiving “very effective” treatment.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone bitten by an animal with rabies receive four shots of immunoglobulin (immune-bolstering and virus-identifying antibodies) within 10 days of infection to prevent the disease from taking over.

Mulkey said the owner gave the pet away to a friend and told health officials it had been put down after the bite.

Mulkey said it was unclear if law enforcement or animal control officials were involved in putting the raccoon down or even if the animal was killed at all like the owner said. The rabies control officers will help make sure things are handled appropriately in such situations in the future, including confirming a dangerous animal is taken to a shelter for monitoring, Mulkey said.

“Even if a county has a form of animal control, the Board of Health is still responsible to make sure rabies is thoroughly investigated; that bites are investigated,” he said.

The rabies virus cannot be contracted through common human fluids like blood, spit and urine, according to the CDC, but human-to-human transmission, though rare, has been documented.

“If it’s ever contracted, it’s 99 percent fatal,” Mulkey said.

Rabies is virtually untreatable after 10 to 14 days, the CDC reports, with symptoms ranging in severity from headaches and fever to induced excitement or depression to mania, coma and death.

“Rabies is serious stuff,” Mulkey said. “So we try to catch it and make sure people are getting post-exposure treatments. The main thing, we don’t care what happened to the raccoon at this point. We want to make sure we control potential exposure.”