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Rabies stalks Northern California

Many people have the sense afoot that rabies is a thing of the past, a storybook disease like smallpox or leprosy. But as a recent case from Calaveras County shows, rabies is alive and well in our region, and people need to take it very seriously.

In the month of November alone, seven persons had to be treated for rabies, and nine dogs had to be put down. All because one dog had contact with the other dogs, which passed the virus on.

There is only one defense

A local animal services manager, speaking to the Calaveras Enterprise, said that the number of cases was not unusual. Rabies is always a possibility, throughout the state - wherever there are mammals.

The only defense against the disease is for people to have warm-blooded pets and livestock vaccinated - a preventive practice that many people continue to ignore.

Once bitten ...

Rabid animals behave one of two ways. One is considered friendly, in which the animal, usually your pet, jumps into your lap. The other form is aggressive and disturbing - you will see the dazed animal snapping at the air or biting rocks.

Rabies can only be transferred by saliva. Even if you are not bitten, but get the animal's saliva on you, the infection can enter through any break in the skin. You cannot transmit the disease to others you yourself are sick with rabies.

Even if a bite is not rabid, it can be serious, causing permanent damage to nerves, tendons and other tissue. For most bite wounds, it is important to gently irrigate the bite area. This cleansing has been shown effective in limiting bacterial infection. If you haven't gotten a tetanus shot in ten years, get one now.

Assessing the infection

The only way to confirm rabies in an animal is by examining brain tissue of the animal that has been put down. This is why, in so many movies and stories, emphasis is placed on locating the animal that bit you. If the animal is not located, the human must be given a series of shots to keep the infection from advancing.

If the animal that bit you can't be located, the safest approach is to start the injections. These injections were once nightmarish, involving knitting-length needles inserted in the abdomen; now they are merely unpleasant, involving flu-shot sized injections to the shoulder and other muscle sites. The vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing death.

Any mammal can be rabid. It is estimated that about half of all bats carry the disease. It happens in horses, dogs, cats and other farm animals. The worst thing you can do is ignore a bite. So don't be afraid of scary tales of foot-long needles. And don't pet wild animals you don't know.

Sources: Calaveras Enterprise, Mayo Clinic Online, Huffington Post personal account ("What You 'Know' About Rabies Shots is Wrong")

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