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Georgia dwarfs most states in rabies

Georgia has its share of nasty top ranks: Atlanta traffic, feral hogs and bad air.

But it also finishes high in a deadly disease that promises painful shots, scared parents and tearful memories of Old Yeller: rabies.

The Peach State is a leader in rabies outbreaks. The most common culprit is the raccoon but lately foxes have made the news as Henry, Douglas, Forsyth and Rockdale residents who have been treated after being bit can attest.

The foxes, who are more often victims of rabid raccoons, often add more drama. One in Henry County attacked multiple people before a Vietnam vet killed it with a rake. A boy in Douglas County choked one to death. Both tested positive for the disease.

“Every rabid fox I have seen since 1996 they are nuts, they will chase you and bite you,” said Frances McMillan, the Douglas County chief of animal control who acknowledges her worst encounter was being bushwhacked by the more common sickly critter.

“The rabid raccoon that bit me was chewing on my leg,” she said. “He had his body wrapped around my leg and how do you get him off of there?”

She was saved by a man who kicked the animal off her leg. She then pursed and snared the animal. “He was shouting, ‘Woman are you crazy,’” she said of her stunned benefactor. “And I said, ‘I have to catch him. He bit me.”

McMillan had to have the animal for testing. Rabies is extremely rare in humans in the United States because mandatory vaccinations have protected pets and treatment is so effective for people.

Still, worldwide an estimated 55,000 people die annually; McMillan said a friend of her son died of it after finding a dead bat in his motel room out West. Presumably it bit him as he slept, she said.

Georgia routinely confirms 370 or more rabies cases a year, mostly after somebody has been bitten. In 2012 it had 373 compared to 48 in Tennessee, 54 in Alabama, 109 in Florida and 137 in South Carolina in 2012, according to information collected by the Centers for Disease Control.

Only North Carolina, with 434, had more in the region, according to the CDC figures.

“We’ve had eight cases this year already,” said Vince Farah, head of animal control in Henry, saying they were spit between raccoon and fox carriers. ““We have had animals attacked and we have had four people attacked but only three got bitten.”

“Normally we have a total of four to six although our record is 13 three years ago.”

Georgia also had more people treated for rabies exposure than 45 other states with 1,197 treated annually on average, according to a 2009 CDC study. The five states ahead of Georgia dwarfed it in population: New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida and California.

The cost of treatment for people runs $6,000 for each series of shots — and can run double, said Jesse Blanton, a CDC rabies expert.

Suburbanization also is playing a role as animals such as raccoons, foxes and coyotes take residence around the easy picking provided by garbage cans and dumpsters.

“When you have a rabid raccoon in that setting and a fox or coyote coming to the garbage can as well, the raccoon will go after them,” Blanton said.

The rampant rabies in Georgia arose from poor decisions in Virginia nearly four decades ago, said Keith Wehner, former field coordinator of the national rabies management program.

In the 1970s, fur prices were high and Virginia hunters got officials to import wild raccoons from Florida to restock the state’s depleted population, Wehner said.

Florida was home to the variant of rabies especially contagious in raccoon and the Florida critters carried it to the rest of the east coast and into Canada, Wehner said.

For more than 15 years, the federal government has been battling the disease by creating a 25-mile-zone where wild raccoons are vaccinated just west of the Appalachian Mountains to try to keep the rabid raccoons largely contained to Georgia and other Atlantic states until it can be eradicated. The line goes from Sand Mountain in northeast Alabama, through a small section of northwest Georgia and north through Tennessee.

The government spends $23 million a year spreading the vaccine in the form of bait, fearing the disease could strike the Midwest and spread to the Rockies, Wehner said.

“The concern is if there is no physical barrier it would race across to the Continental Divide and cost millions of dollars,” Wehner said. “The plan is we will be baiting Georgia and all those Atlantic state as well, trying to push it off the continent or at least back to Florida.”

The “raccoon rabies virus variant” — as the disease is called —showed up in Tennessee in 2003, prompting a heavy counter-attack with baiting vaccinations.

“The numbers really decreased — there were no cases (of raccoon variant rabies) last year only three cases in total the two years before that,” said Heather Henderson, an epidemiologist with the Tennessee Department of Health. “It is probably more feasible to keep the variant out. Once it is already all over the place I don’t know how feasible it is.”

Some Georgia counties have inquired about doing something similar to the vaccination program in Tennessee but the state doesn’t see that as economically feasible and unlikely would be ineffective because the virus is so widespread, said Charlie Killmaster, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

All rabies variant are identified by their primary carrier — raccoon, fox, skunk, bat — but can be transmitted between species. However, experts say the secondary carrier has more difficulty transmitting the disease, which helps keep the disease tamped down elsewhere.

For instance the rabid foxes in Georgia normally have raccoon variant but rabid raccoons in the Midwest are generally affected by the skunk variant, which is predominant there, said the CDC’s Blanton.

Raccoon rabies spreads much more aggressively because the communal animals scavenge together and they also mix well around humans who find them cute and approach them, experts said.

Skunks, on the other hand, are more solitary and other animals and humans avoid them.

“Our thought has always been that most things don’t want to go near a skunk,” Blanton said.

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