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According to police and health officials, rabies is a perennial issue in Fairfax County, and taking measures toward its prevention is not only a good idea, it also is the law.

Rabies is a potentially fatal virus that attacks the spinal cord and brain in warm-blooded animals, including humans, according to the Fairfax County Animal Shelter website. The virus mainly is contained in the saliva of infected animals, and can be transmitted through a bite or by saliva entering a wound, eye or mouth. Animals with rabies can survive for as long as six months in an infected state and might or might not show symptoms at all.

“Foaming at the mouth is, in fact, a symptom of rabies in animals,” said Dr. Peter Troell, of the Fairfax County Health Department during an April 25 rabies online forum. “However, animals can present in various different ways when they have rabies. Some animals show more classic symptoms, such as foaming at the mouth; strange vocalizations, inability to drink water, and may stagger. Other animals with rabies appear inactive or tired, and may have paralysis of the hind legs.”

“A rabid animal can be misleading,” said Fairfax County Police spokesperson Lucy Caldwell. “It doesn’t have to be foaming at the mouth. As a matter of fact, infected animals can be calm and appear friendly.”

According to Caldwell, there is an average of about 50 cases of rabies reported to police within the county every year, and there have been 239 reported cases during the past five years.

So far in 2012, the public has encountered and reported 16 rabid animals, she said.

In the county, raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats are the animals most likely to be sick with rabies. Unvaccinated pets that contact wildlife are at high risk of becoming infected. Although rabies rarely causes disease in humans in the U.S., people exposed to a rabid animal can become sick and, with very rare exceptions, rabies disease is fatal, Troell said.

“Today, rabies shots are no longer given in the stomach. Rabies shots are given in the arm and are generally considered no more painful than any other shot,” Troell said. “The current treatment for rabies includes rabies immune-globulin and four doses of vaccine administered over a two week period. This is done because, with rare exceptions, people with rabies die. Over the years, the number of rabies shots required has decreased as the quality of vaccine improved. Still, doctors believe that anything less than 4 shots does will not provide adequate protection.”

Annual rabies vaccinations are mandatory for all cats and dogs in Fairfax County.

“All dogs 4 months of age and older must also have a dog license; failure to license your dog or inoculate pets against rabies is a class 4 misdemeanor and may result in fines of up to $250,” Caldwell said.

According to Troell, the majority of people in the U.S. who have gotten sick with rabies have most likely been exposed to a bat.

“Bats are less likely than some other animals to carry rabies. However, exposures to bats often go unnoticed by people because bats have small teeth, bites are usually not as painful, and people are often unaware they were bitten because bites occur while they're sleeping,” Troell said. “Also, many people are not aware that rabies can be transmitted by bats and do not seek treatment when bitten by bats. Having said that, only one to four people die each year from rabies in the U.S. and the number of people who die from rabies as a result of a bat-bite is even lower. So, the overall risk of contracting rabies from bats is low.”

Director of Fairfax County Animal Control Michael Lucas said bats are an important part of a healthy ecosystem and should not be seen as dangerous or predators.

“Bats are good,” he said. “They eat mosquitoes and flying insects and are important to our ecosystem. Being a mammal, a bat can be a carrier of rabies and if bitten by one, it should be immediately reported.

“Bats frequently get inside homes. An unvaccinated, exposed indoor cat [or dog] may require up to 6 months of quarantine if bitten by a bat. So…there is a real risk. If a bat is found in a home, you should call police, who will respond and capture it. Officers will determine if there was an exposure and, if so, the animal will be tested for rabies. If not, the bat will be released.”

According to Caldwell, no one part of the county is more prone to rabid animals than any other.

“Rabies is not contained to any one part of the county,” she said. “It is everywhere. If you think you've been exposed to rabies, you should report it to Animal Control by calling 703-691-2131. And remember, vaccinating your pets isn’t just common sense, it is the law.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com