State Health Official: Surging Animal Populations Contribute To Rabies Record

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PHOENIX — An increase in Arizonans living near and recreating in wilderness areas has contributed to a record number of rabies cases in Arizona, a state health official told lawmakers Thursday.

So far this year, the Arizona Department of Health Services has confirmed rabies in 99 animals, putting the state on pace to eclipse the record of 176 cases set last year, said Craig Levy, vector-borne disease director for the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“We are on track this year, unfortunately, of setting another state record,” he told the Senate Committee on Government Institutions.

Because of an outbreak in foxes and skunks around Flagstaff, Coconino County has ordered a three-month quarantine forcing owners to keep dogs on leashes or in fenced yards and to keep cats indoors in and around the city.

Levy said Pima County is seeing an unusual number of rabid skunks, as is the area of Cochise County around St. David.

However, Levy said rabies outbreaks are cyclical and will abate with time.

Better rainfall in recent years has increased the population of skunks, foxes, bobcats, bats and other creatures that carry rabies, and the disease eventually will reduce those numbers, he said.

Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system and is spread most commonly through bites from infected animals. It’s always fatal in humans once symptoms appear, but can be prevented in exposed individuals through the prompt administration of shots.

There is no treatment for unvaccinated pets.

Levy said officials are especially concerned with summer approaching.

“You’re going to have a lot of people camping and fishing, and we want them all to be prepared,” Levy said.

Those venturing into the wilderness should be ready for encounters with rabid animals, Levy said. Running is a good option when facing skunks, which can’t keep up, but he said foxes and bobcats are highly aggressive when they contract rabies and will catch up to you.

“A good walking stick, believe it or not, is one of the best forms of protection,” Levy said.

Laura Oxley, the communications director for the Department of Health Services, said that the number of rabid bats usually picks up in the summer as bats migrate from Mexico to Arizona. That leads to increased rabies exposure in the fall, when rabid bats fall onto school grounds and children play with them, she said.

Pima County leads all Arizona counties with 35 cases of rabies so far this year, 25 of them involving skunks. Officials are urging residents to avoid skunks that act friendly toward humans, and that do so during the daytime, said Patti Woodcock, community relations manager for the Pima County Health Department.

“If a nocturnal animal like a skunk or a bat is out in the daytime, that is a sure sign that something is wrong,” she said.

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