Shortage of Human Rabies Vaccine Reported

The United States is currently experiencing a severe shortage of human rabies vaccine, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Pre-exposure vaccinations of veterinary, animal control, game wardens, laboratory and other high-risk personnel are "on hold" until the vaccine shortage is resolved.

Ronald Warner, DVM, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, said people need to be especially cautious around wildlife when camping or engaging in other outdoor activities this summer.

Encounters, especially bites or scratches from bats, skunks, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and raccoons are considered to pose a high risk for rabies infection. However, bites or scratches from domeatic animals also can be dangerous as unvaccinated pets are often the most common link between wildlife rabies and humans.

While it is difficult to get a good handle on the number of horses that die of rabies each year (rabies cases are fatal), Jesse Blanton, epidemiologist in charge of rabies surveillance with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga., said there are 1,000-1,500 horses tested annually for rabies, with less than 1% positive for the disease. The unfortunate part of this is that horses often have numerous human exposures for each equine case, which might occur during attempts to diagnose the animal.

"I've seen paralytic and aggressive rabid horse cases," said Blanton. "Some owners are attacked and bitten by rabid horses.

"I recommend any animal with people contact, including horses, be vaccinated against rabies to prevent transmission to people," Blanton said.

Warner said clinical signs of rabies can vary. When dealing with wildlife or domestic animals, watch for signs that may include:

  • Abnormal behavior or confusion. For example, nocturnal animals such as coyotes or raccoons should not be seen during daylight hours.
  • Excessive salivation and aggression. Not all animals with rabies will foam at the mouth. In some cases, animals will become lethargic.

If you are bitten or scratched by an animal follow these steps:

  • Wash the wounds thoroughly with plenty of soap and water and consult a physician as soon as possible.
  • Secure the animal for observation or testing if possible.
  • If an animal is killed, get it processed for shipment as soon as possible to reduce the chances of a "decomposed" test result.
  • To reduce the chance of a "destroyed" test result, do not damage the animal's brain.
  • If an animal cannot be captured, but it remains in the area and can be observed for a 10-day period, that is an acceptable alternative to treatment.

"The treatment for rabies is expensive and long," Warner said. "Once a person is diagnosed with rabies, the virus is almost always fatal."

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