Rabies in Florida

Around 2,000 people are treated in Florida each year for possible rabies bites. Unlike the United Kingdom where cases of rabies are very rare, it is endemic throughout most counties of Florida. There are several animal groups that are considered high risk and known to potentially carry the rabies virus in Florida; namely skunks, raccoons, ferrets, bats, otters, bobcats, coyotes, foxes and stray cats and dogs.

Raccoon

Cute Raccoon?
Creative Commons image, courtesy of Taylorkydd (www.flickr.com)

Statistically raccoons are the most likely animal to carry the disease followed by bats and foxes. Other animals such as rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, opossums, rats, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, guinea pigs, armadillos and hedgehogs plus fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds rarely catch rabies.

Rabies is usually transmitted by a bite but it can also be caught if saliva from the infected animal gets into an open cut or wound. Any mammal including humans can catch rabies if they are bitten and then potentially pass it on.

Symptoms typically last for 1 to 2 weeks and can include a change in temperament (affection or withdrawal), irritability, aggressiveness, nervousness or loss of fear, sensitivity to light, drooling, convulsions and ultimately paralysis and then finally death from respiratory failure.

However, there is no sure fire way of knowing if a wild animal has rabies so the best advice is not to get too close, or attempt to feed it, stroke it or pick it up. The same applies to stray cats and dogs.

Treatment of Rabies

If you are bitten or suspect saliva may have got into a wound:

  • Wash the wound with soap and water for at least 10 minutes to remove as much of the saliva as possible
  • Go to your family doctor or the nearest emergency room
  • Make sure you can describe the type of animal and where it was so it can be picked up for testing if necessary

If in any doubt, always seek medical advice. Even if the animal that bit you does not have rabies, you may still need a tetanus shot.

Nowadays, the rabies vaccine treatment regime is nowhere near as painful as it used to be and you should recover pretty quickly. Untreated, rabies will attack the nerves and the brain and will likely kill you.

Early signs of illness in humans are non-specific and include fatigue, headaches, fever, loss of appetite, pain, numbness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. As the illness develops, more severe symptoms may become apparent including anxiety, hyperactivity, disorientation, insomnia, depression, hallucinations, seizure and paralysis.

Statistics of Rabies in Florida

About 60,000 people are bitten by domestic or wild animals in Florida each year. Around half of these are children and most bites are from domestic dogs.

Since records started in 1881, 76 people have died in Florida from rabies but the last known death from human rabies contracted in Florida itself was in 1948. This was before major controls were put in place to enforce the vaccination of all domestic cats, dogs and ferrets.

There is also an oral rabies vaccination (ORV) programme to vaccinate wild animal populations, particularly raccoons, foxes and coyotes using plastic sachets containing the vaccine which are attractive to wild animals. Animals will eat the bait and in doing so receive a vaccination.

Each year there are around 150 recorded cases of animals found to be infected with rabies and nearly 2,000 people are given the post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) vaccination treatment as a precaution.