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County Health Department
DATED: Thursday, March 9, 2006
CONTACT: Hunterdon County Health Department 908-788-1351
CONTACT PERSON: Carl Rachel, Public Relations Director
Confirmed rabies cases among Hunterdon County animals totaled 13 during 2005, the same number as the previous year. However, the county department of health is sounding a cautionary alert because four of last year's cases involved cats. "Rabies in cats poses the particular possibility that the disease can get a lot closer to humans," said Jim Gallos, consumer health coordinator. "Both domestic and feral cat can live in close proximity of each other and very near homes. This brings the potential for rabies right to the doorstep."
Last year, the county health department submitted 98 specimens to the
state rabies laboratory for testing. Of these samples, 13 (13.2 percent)
were positive for rabies. The confirmed cases comprise the four cats, four raccoons, two bats, and single cases in the bovine, fox and
groundhog communities. Important to note is that these positive rabies specimens were distributed widely throughout the county, not clustered
in any particular area. Subsequently, the threat to both wildlife and domestic animal populations is spread across the county.
Rabies surveillance in Hunterdon County began in 1989. "What we've observed is that every four years dating back to 1990, there's an apparent spike in confirmed rabies cases," explained Gallos. "Fortunately, we have not seen the numbers we experienced during 1990, when we hit 197 confirmed cases. That remains our highest annual case count since tracking began."
Looking back at rabies in Hunterdon County, confirmed cases during 1991
fell dramatically to 26 and then again the next year when only 3
confirmed cases were recorded. However, the case count began another climb to 13 during 1993 and then peaked at 23 in 1994, the fourth year
following the previous peak. The apparent four-year cycle continued when rabies cases again hit high counts of 21 and 18 during 1998 and 2002
respectively. However, there are numerous variables that can drive rabies incidence, so no public health expert will give an ironclad assurance that such trends will continue or can be used to predict threat.
One certainty is clear though. With the human population growing in
Hunterdon, the scope of the work being done by the Hunterdon County
Department of Health is becoming increasingly broad and vital to the welfare of residents, and rabies remains a serious concern. "We're striving to keep pace with the growing workload," reported Gallos. "With rabies control, we have the help of the local boards of health in sponsoring free rabies clinics throughout the county. These are cost-free opportunities for our residents to protect their pets from rabies and reduce the chances of coming into contact with the disease. As you can imagine, household pets comprise most of the 'patients.' With each consecutive year, we see an increase in the numbers of dogs and cats vaccinated."
Until the four cats were confirmed with rabies last year, the most frequently reported rabid wildlife species in Hunterdon County were raccoons and skunks.
"Finding rabies in these wildlife is less surprising," explained Gallos,"But when we detect any rise in the incidence of rabies in cats, that is a concern." Gallos advises that residents should be extra careful around animals that spend much of their lives in the wild but "adopt" humans who put food out regularly. People who decide to feed a wild cat should make every attempt to capture that cat and bring it to a free rabies clinic to be inoculated. That single action will greatly reduce their immediate risk of rabies exposure. It is also recommended for such adopted owners to have animals neutered to prevent breeding. The proliferation of unattended animals unnecessarily increases the risks of disease.
"The best methods to prevent getting rabies are to control the disease with public health programs like the clinics we offer and to persistently remind people to avoid contact with possibly rabid animals," said Gallos. The rabies messages are straightforward: Be sure your domesticated animals and livestock regularly get their rabies shots. Keep your dog on a leash when it's outside of the yard and do not chain it inside the yard. Avoid contact with wild or unfamiliar animals, and don't touch them even when they are dead. Seal basement, porch and attic openings and cap chimneys to prevent animals from entering the home.
Gallos added, "It's also helpful if our residents report to their local animal control officer any stray or animal they see acting strangely or sick. Officers may investigate such cases right in the field and take immediate measures to limit a suspect animal's possible interaction with residents."
The Hunterdon County Department of Health posts the rabies clinic information on its site at http://www.co.hunterdon.nj.us/health/rabiesclinics.htm and distributes rabies literature countywide at public sites and veterinarian offices.
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