For the first time more than 30 years, terrestrial rabies has been reported in Pulaski County, all five cases occurring in Maumelle and north of Maumelle and all skunks.
Cases of rabies in 2012 and so far in 2013 show a marked increase over state averages, though state Public Health Veterinarian Susan Weinstein says she can only guess why that might be.
In 2012, there were 131 reported cases of animal rabies, though the state was averaging only 47 a year since 1990, when cases began to be recorded. By the end of May this year, 92 cases had been reported. Dr. Weinstein said peak rabies season has passed, so she does not expect to see that many cases in the last half of the year.
The state Health Department does not go out into the field to do random assessments but tests animals that are submitted to it by people who suspect the animals are ill, so "the amount we see doesn't accurately reflect what might be out there in the wild," Weinstein said. So far this year, 127 skunks have been brought to Weinstein; 87 of them tested positive for rabies. The other five cases were a bat, a cow, a horse and two dogs. Bats and skunks are carriers of the disease; other animals that contract rabies have been bitten by a rabid skunk.
In Pulaski County, "we've always had every year an occasional bat with rabies, two to five to six, but never rabies on the ground, skunk rabies." That's important, she said, because of the increased threat to humans who are bitten by dogs or cats. "It makes a difference in how we assess how serious is that dog bite. Before we didn't have to worry about it being rabies, because [there had been] no terrestrial rabies [in the county] for 30 years."
Adding to the increased risk to humans is the unfortunate fact that many Arkansans don't vaccinate their pets, especially if their pets live outdoors. There "seems to be a lack of responsibility toward our pets," Weinstein said. She has kept vaccination data on bitten animals, "and for example, for this year, 158 dogs have been exposed to those positive skunks and eight cats." Of the dogs, 47.5 percent had never been vaccinated, only 21 percent were current on their vaccinations and another 31 percent had been vaccinated with an "over-the-counter" or out-of-date vaccine.
"We do a far better job of vaccinating the dogs and cats we sleep with in the house," Weinstein said, which "doesn't make good medical sense," since those are the ones least at risk of rabies.
Rabies occurs west of a diagonal that bisects the state from southwest to northeast.
The last case of human rabies in Arkansas was in 2004, when a person who received a transplanted organ contracted rabies and died. The case was of national interest because doctors had not suspected that solid organs could transmit rabies. The rabies case in Arkansas was detected after four people who received the transplanted organs from the victim here died within a month.
Weinstein said that people are so fearful of rabies that even if the animal that has bitten them does not test positive, they will go ahead with the shots anyway. They are no longer the fabled horrible shots in the belly, but they are "unbelievably expensive," Weinstein said.