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Rabies affecting foxes reached the Massachusetts region in 1992.

Byline: Ellie Oleson

A group of enterprising coon hunters from West Virginia had wiped out their local raccoon population, so they went to Florida to capture some of that state's abundant beasts and bring them home for release.

That is how raccoon rabies, which had historically been limited to the Southeastern corner of the United States, started its spread into the Northeast in the 1970s, first reaching Massachusetts in 1992, according to rabies expert Michael A. Cahill, acting director of the Division of Animal Health of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

Unfortunately, that raccoon strain does very well infecting foxes, skunks and domestic cats. And, in at least one case in Virginia, humans.

"There has only been one human case of raccoon rabies, a man in Virginia, in 15 years. That tells me our programs are working. A large number of animals have sickened and died in that time.

``Over the last 15 years, we've had about 3,000 cases of raccoon rabies in raccoons; about 1,600 in skunks; and about 140 in cats, which have the most human exposure," Mr. Cahill said.

He said that in addition to the Oxford fox, four cats - three from Boston and one from Cape Cod - tested positive for rabies in the last two weeks. Mr. Cahill said that there are more cases of rabid cats than foxes.

Below are some rabies facts from the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Massachusetts Department of Public Health:

- Rabies is a fatal, viral disease of the brain and spinal cord that is spread from the saliva of an infected animal.

- Rabies can be caught in a cave crowded with bats by inhaling the virus floating on bat saliva in the air.

- Rabies rarely infects small rodents and cannot be caught or spread by insects, fish, reptiles or amphibians.

- Rabid animals can attack or can act unnaturally friendly. Avoid contact with wild animals.

- A 15-year-old girl from Fond du Lac County, Wis., contracted rabies in 2004, and became the only person known to have survived the disease.

- A dairy cow contracted rabies in Oklahoma in 2005, leading to a health scare, though pasteurized milk presents no risk for rabies virus transmission, according to the CDC.

- A rabid horse attended the Shelbyville, Tenn., Walking Horse Celebration in 2006, resulting in a warning from the CDC to 150,000 participants.

- A Texas teenager woke up to find a bat in his bedroom in 2006. The bat was removed but not tested. The boy developed symptoms of rabies six weeks later.

- From January to September of last year, 62 of 193 raccoons tested by the Massachusetts DPH had rabies, as did 30 of 131 skunks, 26 of 856 bats, six of 721 cats, one coyote and one dog.

- Animals that tested positive for rabies in this state between 1992 and 2002 include 2,100 raccoons, 1,200 skunks, 250 bats, 100 cats, 75 woodchucks and nine foxes, as well as a cow, coyote, dog, horse, pig, fisher, otter, rabbit, goat, deer, shrew and one chinchilla.

- From 1894 to 1935, there were 70 human deaths from rabies in Massachusetts. Since 1935, there has been only one, a man bitten in Africa by a dog in 1983.

- Ellie Oleson
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 24, 2008
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