Rabies deserves its reputation as a dreadful, deadly virus. Infection is almost always fatal for humans and animals once symptoms appear. This is why a key aspect of rabies response is raising awareness about rabies prevention and control and why every year, the Virginia Department of Health partners with the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association to sponsor Rabies Awareness Week, celebrated Sept. 25 to Oct. 1 this year. Rabies Awareness week, which is held in conjunction with World Rabies Day, on Sept. 28, highlights important steps that Virginia residents can take to prevent rabies exposures and illness in themselves and their pets.
Fortunately, in the U.S., human rabies cases are rare, with only one or two cases a year reported on average. This is no accident. It is the result of a decades-long, concerted effort to reduce the amount of rabies found in domestic animals and to develop a workforce of healthcare professionals trained to help respond to rabies exposure concerns. A key strategy to reducing rabies in domestic animals, like dogs and cats, is having them vaccinated for rabies and keeping those vaccinations up to date. Veterinarians are a crucial part of domestic animal rabies prevention, so ask your veterinarian for advice about rabies vaccinations for your dogs, cats, and other animals. If we protect the animals that we have the most from contact with rabies, we also protect ourselves.
Reporting animal bites and vaccinating people are other important ways to reduce the likelihood of human illness. It is critical that animal bites be reported to local officials and individuals seek care from a healthcare provider promptly after a bite. Your provider and local officials will assess the situation to determine if you need rabies vaccinations. There are also some people for whom rabies vaccinations are recommended prior to any potential exposure. They include people in professions in which rabies exposure is more likely, such as animal healthcare providers, animal control officers and wildlife biologists. It also includes people who travel to areas where rabies is common in dogs.
Animal rabies cases, particularly in wildlife, are far more common than human cases. In the U.S., about 5,000 animals per year are laboratory-confirmed as having rabies, and about 90% of these are wild animals, particularly raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes.
Most human rabies cases in the U.S. are from exposure to bats or, like Virginia’s human case in 2017, being bitten by a dog in a country where rabies in dogs is common. Globally, most of the estimated 59,000 human rabies deaths per year are from exposure to rabid dogs. World Rabies Day, sponsored by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, focuses on raising awareness of rabies’ impact and advocating for rabies elimination globally.
In Virginia in 2022, there were 326 cases of animal rabies reported. Raccoons, by far, were the animal most reported, with 149 cases, followed by 67 cases in skunks, 47 cases in foxes and 23 cases in bats. Cats are the domestic animal most diagnosed with rabies and, in 2022, Virginia reported 23 cats with this infection.
In addition to reporting bites promptly and keeping your pets up to date on their rabies vaccinations, there are other ways to reduce risk of rabies. Do not adopt wildlife or take matters into your own hands when it comes to wild animals. If you see a wild animal that appears ill, injured, or orphaned, contact your closest Department of Wildlife Resources office or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
Report stray animals to local animal control authorities and contact animal control or your local health department if your pet is attacked or bitten by a wild animal. Decrease the likelihood that stray and wild animals will be attracted to your home by keeping pet food inside and keeping garbage inside or in a well-secured container outside. Keeping your pets on your property can also help decrease the likelihood they will be injured or exposed to rabies.
If you will be traveling internationally, check with your healthcare provider and the CDC Travelers’ Health page to see if rabies vaccinations are recommended before your trip. Finally, if a rabid animal is reported in your neighborhood or community, remember, public health or animal control officials may want to talk with you and address any questions you have. While rabies is nearly 100% fatal, it is also 100% preventable through prevention measures like vaccinating dogs and cats and reporting exposures promptly.
Related coverage: Aircraft to drop rabies vaccines for raccoons across Southwest Virginia.
Karen Shelton is state health commissioner. Julia Murphy is state public health veterinarian.